China is widely infamous for its public surveillance tactics. The nation’s communist party is known for imposing complete surveillance on its citizens, something that has always attracted criticism on grounds of going against fundamental rights of privacy. Now, a group of hackers named CCP Unmasked has claimed to have ‘hacked’ at least three Chinese companies, which they have claimed in interviews to be social media surveillance agencies. While the claim itself is not particularly shocking, it is interesting to note how government-aligned or empaneled social media companies are using increasingly invasive tactics to snoop on citizens of a nation. Additionally, documents revealed from the CCP Unmasked hack further claim that these firms also have working social media surveillance models for Facebook and Twitter – both platforms that are banned in the Chinese cyberspace.
According to a report by Motherboard, the documents, which were partially vetted by the publication, show a considerable degree of authenticity. The three companies noted in the hackers’ documents include Hong Kong-based Knowlesys, Guangzhou-based YunRun Big Data Service, and Beijing-based OneSight. Each of these companies appear to offer similar services, including a whole suite of cyber espionage tactics. According to reports on the internet, Knowlesys is a noted social media firm, which has claimed to be working with intelligence, security agencies, national militaries and police organisations for over eight years. Some of its previous, documented work that is indexed in public domain include monitoring of messages, social media profiles, geolocation data and public opinion via behavioural analysis on social media, and scraping of private data include relationship status and more. Knowlesys has also offered demonstrations to monitor public opinion during elections – a contentious topic that has seen giants such as Facebook come under scrutiny.
In China, however, things work a bit differently. As a Knowlesys document shows, its services offered to governments and other in-power authorities also include monitoring social media platforms for ‘anti government groups’. While the act in itself can qualify as a severe breach of the sanctity of the electoral process, as well as a citizen’s fundamental right to privacy, it is apparently accepted practice in China – something that falls in line with what multiple reports on China’s public surveillance system has revealed. Recently, a News18 report investigated growing voices of dissent by Chinese nationals on social media platforms – something that the nation’s Communist Party cuts down on severely and actively.
What is also particularly concerning is how Knowlesys and other companies appear to have similar services and models prepared for platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as well, which are banned in China. This indicates that the services may not be central only to China, and such social media surveillance tactics may be adopted by other nations as well. This further raises concerns regarding high profile elections, and questions the state of a democracy, as well as how such levels of surveillance can affect it. Social media surveillance can typically help parties in power to push political propaganda in order to inject bias into the election process, thereby crushing down on the presence of an effective opposition in the system.
While such information about China is not new, it remains to be seen if any further data sets arise regarding other possible clients that firms like Knowlesys work with. Over the past few years, platforms like Facebook have come under increasing scrutiny for not doing enough to prevent external bodies influence public opinion on the influential social media platforms. While most of these companies have, over time, claimed to be ‘intermediaries’ to avoid making political statements, platforms like Twitter have recently implemented censors on inflammatory posts made by national heads – in turn reflecting the increasing need for action by social media platforms, in order to prevent social media firms from impacting electoral processes.