Living in China, it's safe to assume pretty much everything about you is known — or easily can be known — by the government. Where you go, who you're with, which restaurants you like, when and why you see your doctor.
Big Brother doesn't even need to be watching with his own eyes.
There is an entire network — the internet inside China's Great Firewall — designed to gather the information. And there's an industry of private and state-owned high-tech enterprises serving it.
"You could go so far as to make the argument that social media and digital technology are actually supporting the regime," says Ronald Deibert, the director of The Citizen Lab, a group of researchers at the University of Toronto who study how information technology affects human and personal rights around the world.
The lab has taken apart popular apps like WeChat, a messaging app that also does financial transactions designed specifically for the Chinese market by private software giant Tencent. It's used by more than 800 million people here every month — virtually every Chinese person who is online.
Deibert's team found it contains various hidden means of censorship and surveillance. Among other things, the restrictions follow Chinese students who study abroad.
Chinese authorities "have a wealth of data at their disposal about what individuals are doing at a micro level in ways that they never had before," Deibert says.
"What the government has managed to do, I think quite successfully, is download the controls to the private sector, to make it incumbent upon them to police their own networks," he says.
And now it seems, the data these firms collect is for sale.
An investigation by a leading Chinese newspaper, the Guangzhou Southern Metropolis Daily, found that just a little cash could buy incredible amounts of information about almost anyone. Friend or fiancé, business competitor or enemy … no questions asked.
Using just the personal ID number of a colleague, reporters bought detailed data about hotels stayed at, flights and trains taken, border entry and exit records, real estate transactions and bank records. All of them with dates, times and scans of documents (for an extra fee, the seller could provide the names of who the colleague stayed with at hotels and rented apartments).
All confirmed by the colleague.
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