Big Data and social control, a double-edged sword for the Communist Party of China
Personal data is a strategic asset for the regime. Massive leaks of information reveal the ambition of global surveillance of society, but when data are controlled by the leaders’ enemies, it could constitute a danger.
Rome (AsiaNews) – A database with the personal information of a billion Chinese and detailed recordings of police calls were sold online last month.
A hacker claimed that the leak came from the Shanghai police and demanded 10 bitcoins (more than 0,000) in ransom; the samples contained people’s detailed information such as names, telephone numbers, identity card numbers, dates and places of birth.
According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, call records and criminal cases date as far back as 1995, including fraud, theft, domestic violence, rape, as well as details about people summoned by police for discussing political issues online.
The massive leak shows that China is a world leader in data collection about people but that it is also unable to protect such data.
Cybersecurity analysts say the stolen data were hosted on Alibaba's cloud without encryption for over a year. In Shanghai the authorities reportedly summoned executives from the tech giant, including vice president in charge of cloud computing Chen Xuesong. As a result, Alibaba shares fell 7.5 per cent on Friday.
Alibaba is a service provider for the government's digital infrastructure. Back in 2016, its founder Jack Ma suggested applying big data to governance and social control.
More recently, Chinese authorities have used a tracking system developed by tech giants to implement a strict policy of lockdown and zero COVID-19.
What is more, discussions about this massive data leak are censored on Chinese social media. The authorities did not respond to media requests.
Several data security and personal information laws have been put in place since 2016 to boost the authorities’ control over data and prevent its flow out of the country; however, this has not stopped leaks, which have occurred several times.
Under existing laws, Chinese Internet service providers must store users’ data within the country; for example, Apple has had to set up a data centre in southwest China, controlled by a state-owned company, to store Chinese users' data.
Chinese authorities also actively support cyber sovereignty. In the wake of the race for digital control, they use various channels to obtain foreign data, including hacking, penetrating, and acquiring foreign companies.
One example is Chinese video-sharing app TikTok, which sparked controversy over users' privacy. In addition to censorship, TikTok recently admitted that its staff in China can access user data in other countries.
Although TikTok denies providing data to the Chinese government, Chinese companies are required to disclose information to authorities under state security law.
The authorities have increased their control and integration with web giants as big data become more and more important, since personal information is seen as a strategic asset for social control.
Instant messaging apps like WeChat are a perfect tool for surveillance and social control; however, big data can become a threat when it is controlled by the enemies of those in power. In such a case, tech companies end up getting involved in the power struggle for control of the Chinese Communist Party.
According to several foreign media, WeChat Vice President Zhang Feng was arrested for sharing user information with Sun Lijun, a deputy minister of public security later removed by Xi Jinping.
Sun was accused of "cultivating personal power and forming an interest group" within the Communist Party's anti-graft body. Sun allegedly asked WeChat for information about fellow politicians.
The regime's top leaders are equally vigilant about an unfinished WeChat project to use data science to predict who will be the new members of the Politburo, the Party's decision-making body.