Privacy is not something people typically associate with China. The authoritarian state has one of the most comprehensive surveillance systems in the world and very little that anyone there does is not open to government scrutiny at some stage.
But it seems that, belatedly, China might be cottoning onto the idea that personal privacy is something of value. Because new data has revealed that during 2016, police in China had arrested 4,261 suspects in relation to 1,886 separate cases of stealing personal information.
Now in a country of more than 1.3 billion people, this might seem like a rather modest figure. But looking at the figures for previous years, it shows a significant rise. Between 2010 and 2014 there were just 260 prosecutions for the same crime over a four-year period.
The Internet Society of China has estimated that the economic cost of things such as junk messages, leaked personal information and fraud is around 91.5 billion yuan ($13.2 billion). This looks likely to be a conservative estimate, with the actually amount being significantly higher.
According to the Xinhua News Agency, which is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, amongst those arrested were 391 industry insiders working in such sectors as banking, education, telecommunications, delivery services, the stock market and e-commerce. That professional people from such industries are involved illustrates how profitable the trade in personal data can be.
Privacy in Context:
To understand China’s attitude to privacy you have to delve a little into their culture. Chinese society has traditionally been focused on collective rather than individual rights. This is in part why Communism was able to establish itself so quickly and so deeply in China.
This culture, combined with the centralised and all-pervasive government has meant that people have generally not been hugely concerned about intrusions into their privacy. This has led to a lack of effective privacy regulation in Government and on the part of companies.
Earlier this month, a group of 96 individuals were arrested as part of a data theft investigation. Amongst their number was a computer engineer at JD.com Inc., one of China’s largest online retailers. He had a history of similar offences but had still been able to secure a job with access to the same data at a high-profile employer.
Then there is Alipay, the high profile mobile payment system from Alibaba, one of China’s biggest online corporations. A look at their terms and conditions shows that users are allowing the company to sell information, including transaction and location history, to third parties organisations. If this data is misused, then users are all but powerless to complain.
They are not alone. A survey conducted in 2015 found that 43.9% of Chinese websites had security vulnerabilities and estimated that 5.5 billion items of personal data are lost annually as a result.
But it seems that attitudes are starting to change. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, the public is getting increasingly angry at the issue. The explosion in social media use in China has allowed stories to spread much faster and public anger at the issue is growing. The one thing the Communist Party in China fears more than anything is widespread public unrest.
Perhaps more importantly, the economic impacts are also being felt more keenly too. As the economy of China gradually moves towards the high tech, companies are finding that successful overseas expansion is contingent on their being able to protect user data back home.
Big Chinese names such as Alibaba want to become major global players, and the inability to guarantee user privacy is one of the things that is holding them back.
Which is perhaps why the Chinese Government seems to be stepping up its efforts to enforce personal privacy protections and crack down on offenders.
Speaking at the recent National People’s Congress, Ma Huateng, the CEO of another Chinese online behemoth, Tencent, called for the establishment of national standards for data protection and a nationwide system for reporting data breaches.
This would bring Chinese businesses more closely in line with their western rivals and offer some form of reassurance to the Chinese people. But it does of course still leave one big elephant in the room and that is the Government surveillance system which, in contrast to the public mood, is getting stronger and more intrusive all the time.
For the people and the businesses of China to be able to truly enjoy personal privacy, it is here where changes are needed most.