China Expands Its Surveillance Model By Training Other Governments

The past year has witnessed increasingly severe tests for online privacy and freedom. From the Cambridge Analytica scandal to numerous other data breaches affecting millions of people worldwide, the internet has increasingly become a power playground for numerous individuals, companies and governments trying to corrupt democratic principles and manipulate information to their own advantage.

While democracies around the world are struggling with how to balance online free speech and data privacy, authoritarian governments investing heavily in technology seem to be capitalizing on the West’s concerns.

China is ranked as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom, according to a new report by Freedom House, a Washington-based think tank conducting research on advocacy and democracy. And now other countries are turning to Beijing to seek guidance on how to conduct online censorship and surveillance, according to the report, which evaluates personal freedom on the internet and digital authoritarianism. A total of 36 countries, including Thailand, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have undergone training sessions and two- to three-week seminars with Chinese officials on topics such as new media and information management.

“This year, Beijing took steps to propagate its model abroad by conducting large-scale trainings of foreign officials, providing technology to authoritarian governments, and demanding that international companies abide by its content regulations even when operating outside of China,” says the 2018 “Freedom of the Net” report that was released on Thursday.

The countries that have sought training from Chinese officials stretch from Asia to South America, from Africa to the Middle East and into Eastern Europe. They include: Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Belarus, Georgia, Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Angola, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

“While it is not always clear what transpires during such seminars, a training for Vietnamese officials in April 2017 was followed in 2018 by the introduction of a cybersecurity law that closely mimics Chinese law characterized by extreme censorship and the heavy use of automated surveillance systems,” say the report’s authors.

In addition, Chinese companies supplied telecommunications hardware, advanced facial-recognition technology, and data-analytics tools to various governments accused of human rights violations.

This is particularly concerning, say the authors of the report, because China routinely violates individual online freedom through censorship and surveillance systems. In 2018, the country has been singled out for using facial recognition techniques in order to monitor one of its religious minorities in the West, as well implementing a so-called social credit score based on data that the government collects about its citizens and uses to rank them for potential benefits or opportunities.

“The internet can be a real tool for repression and we are seeing this in China,” says Michael Chertoff, chairperson of the board of trustees at Freedom House.

As China expands its military strength and economic and political clout beyond its borders, questions arise over whether the government will one day leverage its international influence for more surveillance.

[ MORE: Countries’ actions on internet spark growing privacy worries.]

“Companies like Huawei are now helping to build large parts of the IT infrastructure in Latin America, Asia, and even in the EU,” Chertoff says. “The concern here is that this opens up the potential for exploiting information in these countries by having technological backdoors which can then be used by the Chinese government to collect intelligence.”

Internet Freedom Declines Worldwide

Of the 65 countries that the annual “Freedom of the Net” study examines, internet freedom declined in 26 nations from June 2017 to May 2018.

With China in the lead, a series of nations reported problems related to internet access, freedom of expression and privacy issues, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia. In 12 of those nations, the declines were related to elections, disinformation, censorship, technical attacks, or arrests of people critical of the governments before elections. Countries such as the Philippines and Kenya have been downgraded from “free” to “partly free” due to content manipulation and cyberattacks.

“The internet, once seen as a liberating technology, is increasingly being used to disrupt democracies as opposed to destabilizing dictatorships,” says Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.

[ MORE: Confusion over Europe’s data privacy law.]

Internet freedom also declined in the United States, after the Federal Communications Commission repealed net neutrality rules that would have prevented internet providers from prioritizing traffic based on type, source and destination.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, 19 nations registered improvements in internet freedom, including Armenia and the Gambia. Armenia is now considered a free country, moving up from the “partly free” category thanks to political changes prompted by mobile applications, media platforms and live-streaming services during the April “Velvet Revolution.”

Gambia jumped to “partly free” from “not free” after the ousting of dictator Yahya Jammeh in early 2017 that lifted a series of restrictions.

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