In China, Big Brother may be selling your personal data

By Simon Denyer

Chinese paramilitary policemen prepare to change their shifts on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo / AP
Chinese paramilitary policemen prepare to change their shifts on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo / AP

Sometimes living in China feels like dystopia has already arrived. As thick clouds of choking smog envelop the Chinese capital this week, more bad news has emerged to make life here feel even more like a grim science fiction movie.

Not only are Chinese authorities collecting vast amounts of personal data on all of their citizens, that data is now for sale.

A report in the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, translated by the SupChina newsletter and website, found that vast amounts of citizens' private information can be freely bought by strangers, for very affordable prices.

For just 700 yuan, or US$100, the paper's reporters were able to find huge amounts of information about a colleague - including a full list of hotel rooms checked into, airline flights taken, Internet cafes visited, border entries and exits, apartment rentals and real estate holdings. All they needed was his personal ID card number.

They were also able to purchase data to pinpoint another colleague's location in real time via his mobile phone or buy detailed information about bank transactions, driving infractions and train journeys - even whom their colleague stayed with during each hotel visit.

SupChina headlined their report "Cashing in on dystopia" and framed it with an image of "Big Brother," the supreme leader of the totalitarian superstate of Oceania in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The data is available on hundreds of tracking services advertised on China's Internet platforms. Some may be fraudulent, but others are clearly accessing information from national police and government databases, as well as banks and mobile carriers, David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project, wrote in the SupChina piece.

It is either being sold by the police and authorities - or outsiders are hacking into national databases, Bandurski wrote.

If that wasn't bad enough, China is already in the midst of an ambitious plan to centralise everyone's data and issue everyone a score based on their "social credit."

Here's how we reported that back in October:

Imagine a world where an authoritarian government monitors everything you do, amasses huge amounts of data on almost every interaction you make, and awards you a single score that measures how "trustworthy" you are.

In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticising the ruling party, from running a red light to failing to care for your parents properly, could cause you to lose points.

And in this world, your score becomes the ultimate truth of who you are - determining whether you can borrow money, get your children into the best schools or travel abroad; whether you get a room in a fancy hotel, a seat in a top restaurant - or even just get a date.

In that story, William Glass, a threat intelligence analyst at cybersecurity expert FireEye, warned that a centralised system would be both vulnerable and immensely attractive to hackers.

"There is a big market for this stuff, and as soon as this system sets up, there is great incentive for cybercriminals and even state-backed actors to go in, whether to steal information or even to alter it," he said.

It seems as though those warnings are coming true rather faster than anyone might have imagined.

In a separate story this week, NPR reported on how Shanghai was already rolling out its version of the social credit system, called Honest Shanghai.

Here's how NPR described the phone app, which was released in November:

"You sign up using your national ID number. The app uses facial recognition software to locate troves of your personal data collected by the government, and 24 hours later, you're given one of three "public credit" scores - very good, good, or bad."

A city government official told NPR the score draws on up to 3000 items of information collected from nearly 100 government entities to determine an individual's public credit score, adding the city also plans to reach for other sources of personal information. A good score earns rewards like discounted airline tickets, and a bad score could one day lead to problems getting loans and getting seats on planes and trains.

But it also quoted Zhu Dake, a humanities professor at Tongji University in Shanghai, as warning the authorities could start judging people in moral or ideological grounds.

"They're using modern technology to create a vision of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four," he said.

On the streets of Shanghai, citizens didn't seem to mind, NPR's Rob Schmitz reported.

But on social media, some people did react with concern to the story that appeared in Southern Metropolis Daily.

"It's definitely the police who sold this information. You don't need to pretend it is not you," said one user, while others complained that it would be impossible to buy government officials' personal data.

"Only we, citizens, don't have any privacy," one wrote.

Other users complained that the selling of personal data was common, and went unpunished.

"If you know someone in a police station, you can get anyone's personal information you want," one user wrote. "There are many bored policemen. When they have time, they just look through all people's personal information for fun."

- Washington Post

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