The Great Firewall of China is pretty well-known these days, as is the fact that it is by no means impenetrable. The Chinese authorities aren’t exactly happy about that, and we have seen a variety of attempts to stop its citizens from using tools to circumvent the national firewall. These have included Chinese ISPs trying to spot and block the use of VPNs; deploying China’s Great Cannon to take out anti-censorship sites using massive DDoS attacks; forcing developers of circumvention tools to shut down their repositories; and pressuring Content Delivery Networks to remove all illegal circumvention, proxy and VPN services hosted on their servers.
Despite years of clampdown, anti-censorship tools are still being used widely in China — one estimate is that 1-3% of China’s Internet users do so, which would equate to millions of people. However, Global Voices has a report of police action in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, whose indigenous population is Turkic-speaking and Muslim, that may be the harbinger of even tougher measures against circumvention tools. It concerns a leaked police report, which contains the following passage:
A netizen in Changji (online account number: XXXXX IP: XXXXX) is suspected of downloading a violent and terrorist circumvention software at 12:42:21 on October 13. The software can run on mobile for sending different types of documents. Once installed, the software can be operated on the mobile management tool set for searching documents, games, backing up photos and sending text messages. This software has been classified by Public Security Bureau as second class violent and terrorist software.
What’s worrying here is that the unnamed circumvention tool is classed as “violent and terrorist software,” albeit only of the second class. As Global Voices points out:
Judging by the “function” described in the case report, the circumvention tool is merely giving its user access to overseas search engines and cloud storage. While the document specifically says that the circumvention tool has been classified by the public security bureau as a type of “second class violent and terrorist software”, there is no public information describing how it was classified as such, or what other products share this classification. This leaves Internet users with no way to know if their software or other tools are legal or not.
Labelling something as “terrorist” is an easy way to justify making it illegal, and to try to head off any criticism of doing so. The Global Voices article notes that this move may be a purely local one, reflecting the continuing state of unrest in Xinjiang. But if it proves a useful way of framing things, it could easily be rolled out across the country.
The Global Voices article points out that there’s another way the Chinese authorities might start to make the use of VPNs and other circumvention tools more risky: by making it a part of the “citizen score” system that is currently being developed to spot “pre-crime”.
A person with no overseas business using circumvention tool to communicate with people outside the country can be viewed as suspicious. And in the case of Xinjiang, where the authorities see 90% of the violent and terrorist crimes are related to getting access to censored information, detecting the downloading and usage of circumvention tool is part of the pre-crime crackdown.
That approach would have the advantage that those doing business abroad using VPNs would be largely unaffected — important for the Chinese economy. But those who are using them purely as circumvention tools to access “forbidden” material beyond the Great Firewall might find that their citizen score drops as a result. Even if circumvention tools aren’t classed as terrorist software and banned outright, increasing the social cost of being seen to employ them might be just as effective.