Public Wi-Fi in China now subject to surveillance

The renewed crackdown on online freedom in China continues apace.

In the northern province of Hebei, Government bodies are in the process of rolling out a series of new measures which will require any business or public building which offers public wi-fi to use surveillance technology to keep a record of all public online activity.

There are also suggestions that similar rules have been put in place in other provinces across China, which would suggest that it is part of a nationwide policy initiative.

Wi-Fi Spying

According to a report by Radio Free Asia, the regulations are being described by Communist Party officials as “online safety protection measures.”

They go on to claim that the new rules “will prevent lawbreakers from using the internet to carry out terrorist activities, spread rumours, or spread pornographic and other illegal content.”

The claim that online controls are put in place to protect public safety are common practice in China and are frequently used to justify the myriad of surveillance and censorship tools employed by the regime. It is not clear how many people in the country accept the justification and how many can see through it.

The new regulations stipulate that any public wi-fi providers must “record and retain user registration information … user login and exit time, caller ID, port number, account number, IP address, domain name, and system maintenance log.”

In addition, a record must also be kept of every website each user visits. All of this data must be retained for a minimum of 60 days.

The businesses and organisations which are required to comply with the new regulations include those in the retail, leisure, catering, and transportation sectors. All businesses are required to obtain government-approved surveillance technology to comply with the rules, and must also meet the costs of purchasing what is needed themselves.

At the same time as the new regulations are rolled out, it is interesting that a free Chinese app which encrypts online data when using public wi-fi networks, just as a VPN does, reported that they had added 100 million users over three months at the end of 2016 and now boast more than 900 million. VPN usage in the country also continues to grow despite government efforts to crack down on them.

Censorship targeting human rights lawyers oppression

It is not just surveillance that continues to grow, but censorship as well.

Researchers from Citizenlab, a research organisation based at the University of Toronto in Canada, has published a report which details evidence that Chinese censors have been blocking content about a police operation in the country which has targeted human rights lawyers, known as the 709 Crackdown.

As CitizenLab professor Ron Deibert has explained “”The 709 Crackdown is considered one of the harshest systematic measures of repression on civil society undertaken by China since 1989… Unfortunately, as our experiments show, a good portion of that discussion fails to reach users of [Chinese social media sites] WeChat and Weibo.”

It is thought that this censorship programme is implemented by banning certain keywords, such as the names of those lawyers being targeted, but apparently, images have also been removed from all account holders which are registered within China.

It is thought that since July 2015 more than 300 human rights lawyers and their families have been targeted by the operation, which has seen people being detained, put under intensive surveillance, and banned from leaving the country. To date, just four people have actually been convicted of any offence, with 10 more still to face charges.

Both the new regulations requiring surveillance of public Wi-Fi usage and the crackdown on public discussion of police oppression of human rights lawyers are just a small part of what is officially the most intrusive programme of online control anywhere in the world.

And whilst a growing number of Chinese users continue to try and use VPNs and other tools to access the free and open internet there are entitled to, many millions more find their online freedoms being ruthlessly suppressed by an increasingly belligerent Chinese Communist Party.