Touring the digital through type

Tag: china

We Chat, They Watch: How International Users Unwittingly Build up WeChat’s Chinese Censorship Apparatus

(Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash)

Over the past several months I’ve had the distinct honour to work with, and learn from, a number of close colleagues and friends on the topic of surveillance and censorship that takes place on WeChat. We have published a report with the Citizen Lab entitled, “We Chat, They Watch: How International Users Unwittingly Build up WeChat’s Chinese Censorship Apparatus.” The report undertook a mixed methods approach to understand how non-China registered WeChat accounts were subjected to surveillance which was, then, used to develop a censorship list that is applied to users who have registered their accounts in China. Specifically, the report:

  • Presents results from technical experiments which reveal that WeChat communications conducted entirely among non-China-registered accounts are subject to pervasive content surveillance that was previously thought to be exclusively reserved for China-registered accounts.
  • Documents and images transmitted entirely among non-China-registered accounts undergo content surveillance wherein these files are analyzed for content that is politically sensitive in China.
  • Upon analysis, files deemed politically sensitive are used to invisibly train and build up WeChat’s Chinese political censorship system.
  • From public information, it is unclear how Tencent uses non-Chinese-registered users’ data to enable content blocking or which policy rationale permits the sharing of data used for blocking between international and China regions of WeChat.
  • Tencent’s responses to data access requests failed to clarify how data from international users is used to enable political censorship of the platform in China.

You can download the report as a pdf, or read it on the Web in its entirety at the Citizen Lab’s website. There is also a corresponding FAQ to quickly answer questions that you may have about the report.

Review: In the Plex

intheplexSteven Levy’s book, “In the Plex: How Google Things, Works, and Shapes Our Lives,” holistically explores the history and various products of Google Inc. The book’s significance comes from Levy’s ongoing access to various Google employees, attendance at company events and product discussions, and other Google-related cultural and business elements since the company’s inception in 1999. In essence, Levy provides us with a superb – if sometimes favourably biased – account of Google’s growth and development.

The book covers Google’s successes, failures, and difficulties as it grew from a graduate project at Stanford University to the multi-billion dollar business it is today. Throughout we see just how important algorithmic learning and automation is; core to Google’s business philosophy is that using humans to rank or evaluate things “was out of the question. First, it was inherently impractical. Further, humans were unreliable. Only algorithms – well drawn, efficiently executed, and based on sound data – could deliver unbiased results” (p. 16). This attitude of the ‘pure algorithm’ is pervasive; translation between languages is just an information problem that can – through suitable algorithms – accurately and effectively translate even the cultural uniqueness that is linked to languages. Moreover, when Google’s search algorithms routinely display anti-Semitic websites after searching for “Jew” the founders refused to modify the search algorithms because the algorithms had “spoke” and “Brin’s ideals, no matter how heartfelt, could not justify intervention. “I feel like I shouldn’t impose my beliefs on the world,” he said. “It’s a bad technology practice”” (p. 275). This is an important statement: the founders see the product of human mathematical ingenuity as non-human and lacking bias born of their human creation.

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