China in the midst of collecting treasure trove of data on Western interests, documents show

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BEIJING- The Washington Post is warning that China is in the process of externalizing its data surveillance of internet data, data mining Western social media, including Facebook and Twitter.

Why?  In order to provide information to its government agencies, military, and police, according to the paper which reviewed hundreds of Chinese bidding documents, contracts, and company filings.

As aggregated on MSN, the Post reported that China has a network of government data surveillance services, which they call public opinion analysis software, which have been used domestically within the communist country to warn officials of information which may prove to be politically sensitive.

While the software was designed to focus primarily on Chinese domestic internet users and media, the Post says, they found during their review of over 300 Chinese government projects starting at the onset of 2020 that software orders for programs designed to collect data on foreign sources such as Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies were being sought.

The Post said the documents, which were available through domestic government bidding platforms, that new or more advanced software systems designed to gather such data were being sought by state media, propaganda departments, police, military, and cyber regulators within the communist nation.

Among the programs are “a $320,000 Chinese state media program that data mines Twitter and Facebook, designed to create a database of foreign journalists; a police program costing upwards of $216,000 which analyzes Western chatter on Hong Kong and Taiwan; and a cyber center in Xinjiang which monitors and catalogues Uyghur language content abroad,” the Post said.

They quoted a Beijing-based analyst, who told them:

“Now we can better understand the underground network of anti-China personnel,” said the analyst, who works for a unit which reports to the country’s Central Propaganda Department.

The analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Post they were directed to produce a data report explaining how negative content regarding the CCP’s senior leadership is spread on Twitter, content which includes “profiles of individual academics, politicians and journalists.”

The program is part of larger efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to enhance its propaganda efforts utilizing technology, including artificial intelligence. It also serves to warn Beijing of trends which run counter to their interests.

“They are now reorienting part of that effort outward, and I think that’s frankly terrifying, looking at sheer numbers and sheer scale that this has taken inside China,” Marieke Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund told the Post. She has conducted extensive research on China’s domestic public opinion program.

“It really shows that they now feel it’s their responsibility to defend China overseas and fight the public opinion war overseas,” she said.

China’s efforts include “buying and maintaining foreign social media accounts on behalf of police and propaganda departments,” with others saying China uses “the targeted analysis to refine Beijing’s state media coverage abroad.”

While some purchases are described as “small, automated programs,” others cost in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars and are “staffed 24 hours a day by teams including English speakers and foreign policy specialists.”

The programs are described as “highly customizable” and are able to “collect real-time social media data” from Western users, with some being able to track “broad trends on issues including U.S. elections.”

While the Post was unable to directly review data collected by the systems, they did speak so individuals directly involved in the government’s public opinion analysis, and were told of the availability of “software systems that automatically collect and store Facebook and Twitter data in real time” on Chinese servers.

Policies implemented by both Twitter and Facebook specifically ban automated data collection of data on their services without authorization; in the case of Twitter, their policy bans “developers from gathering data used to infer a user’s political affiliation or ethnic and racial origin,” the Post said.

“Our API provides real-time access to public data and Tweets only, not private information. We prohibit use of our API for surveillance purposes, as per our developer policy and terms,” said Katie Rosborough, a Twitter spokesperson. 

She was speaking in reference to Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), designed for developers to retrieve public data from the platform, in addition to other functions.

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The Post reached out to Facebook for comment as to their awareness of the monitoring or whether anyone listed as supplying the software to the CCP were authorized to collect data from the platform. Likewise, no response was received from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

The current program being undertaken by Beijing is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s goal of modernizing China’s propaganda program while controlling the internet in that country.

By collecting and monitoring data, officials in China are able to get insight into public opinion, not easy in a country which doesn’t hold public elections or allow independent media.

Most ominously, the systems allow for instant notification of officials and police of negative content, in real time. All of this is part of a program started after the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989, known by Beijing as “public opinion guidance work”—defining public opinion “through targeted propaganda and censorship.”

While China has kept the size and scope of their public opinion monitoring industry (domestic spying) close to the vest, Chinese state media has given some indication of its size.

For example, China Daily, a state newspaper reported over two million people were working as public opinion analysts in 2014. Meanwhile in 2018, People’s Daily, another government propaganda paper reported the online opinion analysis apparatus was worth “tens of billions of yuan,” basically billions of U.S. dollars and was growing at 50 percent per year.

The expansion of China’s surveillance program to include foreign social media comes after surveys show public perception of the communist nation have dropped to near historic lows, likely driven by the genocide against Muslim Uyghurs and unleashing COVID-19 on the world.

In light of China’s public relations hit for a virus that has killed millions, whether by accident or design, Xi has asked senior officials within the Chinese government to portray a more “trustworthy, lovable and reliable” image of the country abroad while looking for “the effective development of international public opinion guidance.”

The Post spoke with two individuals who work as analysts in public opinion analysis unites, who told them they “receive automated alarms via SMS, email and on dedicated computer monitors when ‘sensitive’ content was detected.” The two were not authorized to speak to foreign media.

“Having responsibility for [the monitoring] is a lot of pressure,” said one, adding, “If we do our work poorly, there are severe repercussions.”

Given China’s record, it’s clear what those are.

The Chinese propaganda efforts have gotten the attention in Washington, or at least they did under the prior administration. In 2020, the Post notes, the State Department began to reclassify U.S.-based operations of China’s state media outlets as foreign missions, which served to increase reporting requirements and restrict visa allocations.

The Post reported that in an April 2020, article, an analyst at the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Data Center reported the ultimate goal of public opinion analysis as follows:

“The ultimate purpose of analysis and prediction is to guide and intervene in public opinion,” said Liao Canliang. “…public data from social network users can be used to analyze the characteristics and preferences of users, and then guide them in a targeted manner.”

He noted Cambridge Analytica’s impact on the 2016 election as evidence that social media indeed has the ability to steer public opinion.

“The West uses big data to analyze, research, and judge public opinion to influence political activities…as long as there is a correct grasp on the situation, public opinion can also be guided and interfered with.”

It is well known that China has been trying to boost influence on Twitter and some other U.S. social media platforms.

In June 2020, Twitter suspended 23,000 accounts tied to the CCP, which it claimed were covertly spreading propaganda in order to undermine pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In December, the platform removed 2,048 accounts ties to Beijing which were producing content designed to undermine accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Equally concerning is that advanced social media surveillance could increase targeted harassment of China’s critics abroad.

“The Chinese government is one of the worst offenders when it comes to targeting individuals outside of the country,” said Adrian Shahbaz, director of technology and democracy at Freedom House, a think tank.

“It has an extremely chilling effect on how Chinese citizens outside of China are using social media tools, because they know that back home, their information is very easily monitored by Chinese authorities,” he said.

China’s data collection operation appears to be extremely advance, with one company Source Data Technology, based in Shanghai says it uses “advanced big data mining and artificial intelligence analysis technology” which covers over 90 percent of social media in the U.S., Europe, and China’s neighboring countries.

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