China’s Web filtering starts in the West

July 1, 2009

Eric Auchard— Eric Auchard is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own —

The Chinese government has backed away from mandating filtering software on all personal computers in China, in a move that averts a dangerous escalation in its censorship powers.

But however controversial and unworkable China’s plan to require Internet filters on PCs proved to be, Western firms have largely themselves to blame for creating and selling such filters in the first place.

The danger rears its head whenever technology created to solve some specific security problem is put to new and unintended use, not just in repressive regimes like China, Iran or Saudi Arabia, but professed freedom-loving countries in Europe or the USA.

“What is good and what is evil?” asks Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at Finnish anti-virus software company F-Secure Corp. “It is really a very basic problem that security people face.”

A computer password cracker in the wrong hands is considered malicious, of course. But corporate network administrators rely on the same tools to recover lost documents when employees forget computer passwords. Voice recognition software used in corporate call centres to automate and improve customer service can be used by police to wiretap suspects on a grand scale.

On Tuesday, China’s official news agency reported that a government ministry had abruptly backed down from requiring that every PC sold in China include a censorship program called “Green Dam-Youth Escort”.

The software blocks web sites using a blacklist of keywords judged to be sexual or politically sensitive, or flesh-coloured images it assumes are naked bodies. But University of Michigan researchers found that the software developed by a Chinese firm had liberally borrowed the code of parental control software CyberSitter from the California-based firm Solid Oak.

Mobile network maker Nokia Siemens Networks was criticized last month after the Iran election protests for supplying “deep packet inspection” technology to mobile phone companies which Iran’s government allegedly used to track online dissidents. The same software for so-called “lawful intercepts” is widely used in phone networks around the world, be it Iran, China or the United States. The main differences are only how far network monitoring goes and to what uses such information is put.

These issues cannot be dismissed merely as unauthorized uses by bad cops in foreign lands. All the world’s biggest technology suppliers play some role in creating security tools that have Janus-like qualities, depending on the intentions of their users.

The dark side of the Internet is not some isolated corner. It is built with the same tools “good guys” use with the best of intentions, without considering their Orwellian surveillance potential. It is just the dual use of networked, interconnected technologies.

Companies such as IBM, Cisco, Intel and Dell are some of the dozens of vendors that market remote data recovery tools to police agencies that can be used to remotely monitor suspects. Once available commercially, it’s only a matter of time before such software is sold or copied for use by authorities in repressive regimes.

Canada’s Absolute Software sells such software for network administrators to track the location and use of all corporate laptops or Blackberries used in their organizations. If a computer is lost or stolen, it can be told to phone the factory every 15 minutes. Absolute then turns over the Internet address of the machine to police to recover the device. In countries with fewer safeguards, such tools can be used to snoop on or prosecute political dissidents.

Hypponen says computers have raised a host of issues that hardly existed in the Cold War era. “Monitoring traditional mail can be done, but takes a lot of manpower,” he says. “E-mail monitoring can be done which takes very little manpower.”

The very openness of the Internet has created a vast market for security tools used for Web filtering, network monitoring and text or video surveillance.

The power of technology to do good needs to be weighed against its powers to do evil. The many positive tasks computers perform for us need to be set against their growing powers as surveillance tools and mechanisms of repression. Just because a technology can be built, doesn’t mean it should be. As consumers, we need to be careful what we wish for in the way of modern conveniences.

— At the time of publication Eric Auchard did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund. —

(Editing by Martin Langfield)


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So… because the Internet exists, so does the security censoring software tools required to censor the porn and malicious code… therefore, the Internet shouldn’t have been built…. right? It’s all our (the West’s ) fault. What a ridiculous article. Anybody with a brain knows that with great power comes great responsibility — just ask Spiderman. The real issue here is the cowardly Chinese government who can’t be faced with their own corruption and power-hungry dweebs, so they do whatever they can to “save face” and stop any possible route for political progress or taking responsibility. The “porn” blocking is merely a front they hoped the rest of the world would accept as reasonable — that’s why they stole the code — they didn’t write that part, they wrote the part which spies on their own people in order to squash anything threatening their comfortable nation-robbing lifestyles.

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

I work for a newspaper company in the US of A and they’re already use filtering software to block websites from employees. They are controlling what employees can or can not see.
Why an uproar about a communist state try to control their citizen while we, democratic state, are doing the same thing.
(Don’t tell me that what apply to the country does not apply to private companies.)

Posted by Joe | Report as abusive

You show me new ideas or inventions meant for simple peaceful living and i will show you individuals waiting to use them for the opposite. History shows again and again that humans are very good at turning the innocent into the devisive. Like Bill said “with great power comes great responsibility”…So far humans have proven that we are quite powerful but still lack very much in responsibility.

Posted by trip | Report as abusive

this software just a rubbish

Posted by hdq | Report as abusive

Web filtering… I won’t pretend to understand how the technology works, but it does. I’m not upset by employers using various blocking software on computers they have purchased and that are used in “the office” or when traveling on company business. Too often, employees spend the day surfing porn sites or playing poker or generally wasting everyone’s time and billing their gambling losses to their employer.

There is a need to keep a few harmless diversions available for days when employees eat lunch (and too often, dinner and then breakfast) at their desks. These don’t need to be network games, those that are on each computers hard drive are enough.

What concerns me is the obvious possibility that the US government will block software. I read Reuters, Al Jezerra, and a number of newspapers that originate in Ireland (both the Republic and the six counties) but I worry that should we here in the US get a President as paranoid as Cheney, we will be blocked from seeing any site our paranoid future leader feels is dangerous. (Remember that Bush 43 was “elected” twice, Reagan (with Bush 41 pulling the strings) was elected twice, and Nixon was elected twice. It frightens me that the American people seem to be willing to elect almost anyone. We are not alone in electing the dangerously paranoid — we must keep Maggie Thatcher and Gordon Brown in mind.

We in the US had our ISPs cooperate with the Bush (43) administration’s decision to snoop into private correspondence without the warrants our laws require, and this can — and probably will — happen again.

We in the west must protect our rights to visit any website(s) we choose, even while we protect our children from sites that they are too young to understand.

There’s no reason to be paranoid now, but we must be vigilant.

Posted by ciara | Report as abusive

why do you think setup a software is because ” the cowardly Chinese government who can’t be faced with their own corruption and power-hungry dweebs”.if so ,in China some main portal sites should be forbidden, but it’s not.setup a software can’t prevent people impeach corruption.Chinese government welcome impeach, espcially in network.In China we have 300 million netizens,we have the right and responsibility to censorship government what they are doing and communicate in network.

Posted by Googe | Report as abusive

Filtering done at a place of employment is not censorship or limitation of an employees rights. You go to work for a company – they own the PC, network, software, building (or rent it) – they have the right to decide whether or not you should be allowed to use company time & resources to surf the net. If you don’t like those policies find a different employer.

Filtering done by a country is a whole different issue. If I own the equipment & pay for the infrastructure then what govt. has the right to filter what I can see or say (as an adult)? As it is July 1st these words seem appropriate:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Posted by bluesguy | Report as abusive

“Free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.”

-Pravin Lal, Sid Meyer’s Alpha Centauri

Posted by Hm | Report as abusive

Let’s not be naive, too many journalists and «western government agency» continuously criticizes these types of tools and their usage but they are sometimes just as guilty and that is what is more troubling. It can be understandable for regimes like the ones described in the article to take on such tools and actions to «protect» its citizens but can we really say that a european country is not just as bad when it does something similar.
The biggest example that can be presented today is France and its HADOPI law which outside of its abuse of certain inalienable rights in stores a spy/tracking software that users must install on their PCs to prove they are compliant with the law and innocent of any wrong doing! The worse part is that its not to protect the citizens but instead to protect private organizations like the RIAA and their money cash cows!

Posted by Thomas V. Fischer | Report as abusive

Welcome to 1984 – distrust everything you see, hear, or read unless you can verify it – we live in a world of Dis/mis/censored information –

Citzens of the world need to wake up before we are all enslaved

Posted by dj | Report as abusive