Saturday, April 28, 2012

Canalising the marshes: tidying up the people

Well, this is interesting, both on the Bo Xilai story and also on the general theme of the state of the art in contemporary authoritarianism. It looks like a major part of the case is about BXL's electronic surveillance of Chongqing and specifically of top national-level Chinese officials:

One political analyst with senior-level ties, citing information obtained from a colonel he recently dined with, said Mr. Bo had tried to tap the phones of virtually all high-ranking leaders who visited Chongqing in recent years, including Zhou Yongkang, the law-and-order czar who was said to have backed Mr. Bo as his potential successor. “Bo wanted to be extremely clear about what leaders’ attitudes toward him were,” the analyst said.

That's Zhou Yongkang as in the head of the whole Chinese internal security structure, cops, spooks, and all. Bo's police chief (and future sort-of defector) Wang Lijun is described as being "a tapping freak", addicted to the productivity and hence apparent power of electronic intelligence. Not only that, Wang eventually began tapping Bo, who was also tapping the CDIC feds who came down to keep an eye on him.

The practicalities are, as always, interesting.

The architect was Mr. Wang, a nationally decorated crime fighter who had worked under Mr. Bo in the northeast province of Liaoning. Together they installed “a comprehensive package bugging system covering telecommunications to the Internet,” according to the government media official.

One of several noted cybersecurity experts they enlisted was Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, who is often called the father of China’s “Great Firewall,” the nation’s vast Internet censorship system.

It's worth pointing out that the provincial networks belonging to China Mobile, China Telecom etc. are usually organised as companies in their own right, and they often have their own AS numbers, and indeed they often contract for substantial network development projects with Western vendors (Nokia Siemens recently had a big mobile network contract in Sichuan, notably) on their own right.

Anyway, Fang's involvement is very interesting indeed. He is responsible for the state-of-the-art authoritarian solution to the Internet. This is not just, or even primarily, a question of blacklisting websites or turning off the Internet. The Great Firewall's detailed design, as the Cambridge Computer Lab found out a while ago, is specifically intended to be a semi-permeable membrane. Rather like Hadrian's Wall, it is more about the gates through it than the wall itself, and the defences point in both directions.

When a computer within it tries to initiate a TCP connection to one outside that is classified as dodgy, the Firewall sends an RST message back to kill the connection. This permits much higher performance than the DNS-based blacklisting typical of, say, the UAE.

It also means that it's possible to ignore the RST and look through the firewall by using your own firewall utility (specifically, set something like iptables to drop any RSTs for connections in states other than ESTABLISHED before a suitable time has elapsed). However, it would be a fair guess that any traffic doing this is logged and analysed more deeply.

Further, there is a substantial human infrastructure linking the media/PR/propaganda system, the police system, and the Ministry of the Information Industry. This uses tools such as moderation on big Web forums, direct recruitment, harassment, or persuasion of important influencers, the development of alternative opposition voices, and the use of regime loyalist trolls (the famous wumaodang).

The firewall, like Hadrian's Wall or the original Great Wall, also has an economic function. This acts as a protectionist subsidy to Chinese Internet start-ups and a tariff barrier to companies outside it. Hence the appearance of some really big companies that basically provide clones of Twitter et al. Because the clones are inside the firewall, they are amenable to management and moderation. 

And none of this detracts from the genuine intention of the people at 31 Jin-rong Street, the China Telecom HQ, to wire up the whole place. Iran's surprisingly important role providing broadband to Afghanistan and diversionary links to the Gulf reminds us that providing connectivity can be a powerful policy tool and one that you can use at the same time as informational repression.

So, Fang's achievement is basically a package of technical and human security measures that let whoever is in charge of them command the context Web users experience.

Last autumn, several of the Chinese web startups were subjected to the combined honour and menace of a visit from top securocrats. Tencent, the owner of QQ and the biggest of the lot, got Zhou Yongkang in person. In hindsight, this will have been around the time the CDIC landed in Chongqing.

So, where am I going with this? Clearly, there was serious disquiet that somebody was usurping the right to control the wires. Even more disquieting, the surveillance establishment in Fang's person seemed to be cooperating with him. And the systems he set up worked just as well for someone increasingly seen as a dangerous rebel as they did for the central government. (In fact, the people who like to complain about Huawei equipment in the West have it the wrong way round. It's not some sort of secret backdoor they should be worrying about: it's the official stuff.)

I do wonder, depending on what happens to Fang (he's still vanished, but his Weibo feed has started updating again), if we might not see a relaxation of the firewall, which the pundits will consider "reform". In fact it will be no such thing, rather a cranking up of internal chaos to facilitate a crackdown on opposition.

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