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China's golden shield

June 17, 2002

Corporate complicity in the development of surveillance technology

In a path-breaking report issued in November 2001, the Canadian group Rights & Democracy exposed the involvement of Canadian telecoms giant Nortel in helping security agencies in China snoop on phone conversations and Internet traffic. The report also looked more broadly at the use of high technology to curtail Chinese people’s freedoms. Below, author Greg Walton presents some of the concerns raised in the report.

Mao’s eyes follow me across the vast expanse of Tiananmen Square. Snow covers the new paving slabs, the silence in the square is eerie. The level of police presence is extraordinary. Several days earlier five people, allegedly Falungong practioners, had set themselves on fire. Later, relaxing in the Friendship Hotel I watch as Chinese state television replays the grisly images of burning protestors. The looping surveillance footage shown on state television recalled an earlier moment when it had played a key role.

Following the 1989 Beijing massacre, PRC authorities interrogated thousands of people, subjecting some of them to torture, in an attempt to identify the demonstration’s organizers. But even if the students and workers had resisted the terrors of the secret police, the hapless protestors stood little chance of escaping the net. Stationed throughout Tiananmen Square is a network of UK-manufactured surveillance cameras, originally designed to monitor traffic flows and regulate congestion. These cameras recorded everything that transpired in the months leading up to the tanks rolling into the city.

In the days that followed the massacre, carefully edited images were repeatedly broadcast over Chinese State television. Virtually all the wanted suspects were identified in this way. Siemens Plessey, which manufactured and exported the cameras, and the World Bank, which provided a loan that paid for them, claim they never had any idea that their “technologically neutral” equipment would be used in this manner.

But the lesson did not seem to have sunk in. In 1995, the World Bank authorized further funds to set up an identical traffic flow monitoring system in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Lhasa is not, as yet, known for having problems with traffic congestion; besides, the Barkhor, the area in which the traffic flow system is in operation, is pedestrianized.

Stepping up use of CCTV

In September 2001 Agence France-Presse reported that the Public Security Bureau (PSB) had set up a Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) Network along China’s national railway network. This surveillance system allows officers to compare the faces of the public against a database. According to Beijing Youth Daily the network allowed the police to apprehend 39 “suspected criminals” within five days. Today, rail passengers have to negotiate numerous checkpoints throughout Beijing station, set-up in advance of National Day holiday, October 1, 2001. One PSB officer told AFP, “This system is a nationwide system that has really helped us capture suspected criminals and suspected felons.”

Privacy experts would regard these sample crime detection figures as unusually high. Studies in the United Kingdom, the country with the dubious distinction of leading the world in the mass deployment of CCTV technology, have found that their panoptic web of surveillance has led to very few actual arrests per camera installation. The marked difference in arrest rates in the Beijing context may lie in the subjective nature of the PRC’s definition of “suspected felons.”

In October 2001, following trials of the system installed in Beijing station, the newest Chinese telecommunications operator, China Railcom, announced that it had placed an order with Canadian giant Nortel Networks, which became operational at the end of the year. China Railcom is part of the Ministry of Railways, using the national rail network to support one of China’s three largest telecom networks. The backbone links China Railcom branches in 150 cities across China at gigabit speeds.

Nortel has a long history of doing business in China. When Mao received Nixon in the early 1970s it was Nortel circuits that televised the handshake. But in the last few years the scale of Nortel’s expansion on the mainland has been incredible. Between 2000 and 2001, while Nortel was slashing workforces around the world — 50,000 redundancies in Canada alone — the only region unaffected was China, where Nortel employs over 50,000 workers — almost entirely Chinese nationals.

Controlling the flow?

Following China’s accession to the WTO the government faces a very modern paradox. The leadership understands that information technologies are the engine driving the global economy and that economic growth in China will depend in large measure on the extent to which the country is integrated with the global information infrastructure. At the same time, however, China is an authoritarian, single-party state. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) concern with what it calls “social stability” provides justification for its ruthless suppression of any activities it views as threatening its hold on power.

Yet the “Great Firewall of China” is failing, largely due to the increased volume of Internet traffic in China. The government knows that it can no longer hope to filter out all “objectionable” material before it enters China’s networks; and so, faced with these contradictory forces of openness and control, the Chinese government is seeking to strike a balance between the information-related needs of economic modernization and the perceived security requirements of internal stability.

The Chinese state has found a natural ally in these efforts in Western telecommunications corporations. Many companies, including Nortel Networks, until recently Canada’s largest firm, are playing a significant role in meeting what the Chinese government sees as its security needs. Nortel, along with other international firms, is in effect helping China to replace the proxy firewall located at the international gateway with a more sophisticated system of content filtration at the individual level. They are doing this by relocating filtration and surveillance mechanisms at the edge of the networks: on individual subscribers machines, at homes, in cybercafes and in universities and businesses.

Old-style censorship is being replaced with a massive, ubiquitous architecture of surveillance: dubbed by the authorities “the Golden Shield.” Ultimately the aim appears to be to integrate a gigantic on-line database with an all - encompassing surveillance network — incorporating speech and face recognition, closed-circuit television, smart cards, credit records and Internet surveillance technologies. This has been facilitated by the standardization of telecommunications equipment to facilitate electronic surveillance, an ambitious project led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States, and now adopted as an international standard.

“Neutral” technology?

In November 2000, 300 companies from over 16 countries attended a trade show in Beijing called Security China 2000. Among the organizers was the “CCP Central Committee Commission for the Comprehensive Management of Social Security.” A central feature of the show was the Golden Shield Project, launched to promote “the adoption of advanced information and communication technology to strengthen central police control, responsiveness and crime combating capacity, so as to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of police work.” At the show, China’s security apparatus announced an ambitious plan: to build a nationwide digital surveillance network, linking national, regional and local security agencies with a panoptic web of surveillance. Beijing envisions the Golden Shield as a database-driven remote surveillance system — offering immediate access to records on every citizen in China, while linking to vast networks of cameras designed to increase police efficiency.

In order to make this projected Golden Shield a reality, the Chinese government is to some extent dependent upon the technological expertise and investment of Western companies.

Rights and Democracy found that Nortel Networks is playing a key role in these developments as demonstrated by the following facts:

  • It is conducting joint research with Qinghua University on specific forms of speech-recognition technology, for the purpose of automated surveillance of telephone conversations;

  • It was a strong and early supporter of FBI plans to develop a common standard to intercept telephone communications, known as CALEA. The first CALEA-compliant switch for the North American market is manufactured by Guangdong Nortel (GDNT);

  • Nortel has a close relationship with Datang Telecom, a Chinese firm with substantial interests in the state security market in China.

  • In association with China Railcom, it has provided the infrastructure to transport video surveillance data over a nationwide network — from remote cameras to centralized control rooms operated by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security (MPS)

  • It has provided its “Personal Internet” suite to companies in Shanghai, Beijing and throughout China, thus greatly enhancing the ability of Internet service providers to track the communications of almost half of China’s individual Internet users.

  • It is involved in a $10 million project to build a city-wide fibre-optic broadband network in Shanghai (OPTera) enabling central authorities to monitor the interests of subscribers at the “edge” of the network, principally through the Shasta 5000 firewall, in direct conflict with the right to privacy, and Nortel’s own Privacy Policy. This technology will also make it more difficult for dissidents to have clandestine communications and facilitate police monitoring of Internet users attempting to access URLs not judged appropriate by the Chinese government.

Many other Western firms as well as those mentioned above have been involved in the providing of the technological means for the creation of a repressive state security apparatus. Some of the main manifestations of this include:

  • Sun Microsystems has helped the Public Security Bureau to make use of technology which allows instant comparisons of fingerprints.

  • Cisco Sytems has been at the forefront of the development of firewalls in China.

In addition, high technology from overseas is being used on an MPS project, announced last year, to create a nationwide computerized database containing personal details on every adult in the country.

It will also be employed in plans for a new ID card, using second generation “smart” card technology. It is likely that information contained in individuals’ personal files (dang’an) will contained on a microchip on the smart ID. Qiu Xuexin, director of the No. 1 MPS Research Institute, said recently at the Fourth International Fair of Smart Cards that sophisticated encryption would be used to protect the government data on the new card. But given the lack of any laws allowing individuals to access their own data, people might not be able to access the information contained on their own IDs. For security agencies, however, it is likely to be a different story. Second generation smart cards are likely to be “proximity cards,” which would allow them to be scanned from several feet away without the subject necessarily being aware that he or she is being identified.

The high tech sector often claims that new information and telecommunications technologies are inherently democratic and will foster openness wherever they are used. The Rights & Democracy report debunks this myth. Technology is always embedded in a social context and this report shows how it is being used to bolster repression in a one-party state in the name of expanding markets and earning exponential profits.

**To download a copy of the China Golden Shield report, or to comment on its content, visit:

Rights & Democracy is based in Montreal. Its Web site is: