These surveillance networks are said to be part of Beijing’s broader drive to improve foreign propaganda efforts through big data and artificial intelligence. They also form a network of alert systems designed to issue real-time alerts for trends that undermine Beijing’s interests.
The Biden administration is known to be concerned about US investments in Chinese tech companies with military or surveillance ties. But Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said of the research on China’s internal public network:
They are currently redirecting some of that effort outward. Considering the numbers and the sheer scale this has received in China, this is frankly pretty scary.
Part of the Chinese government’s budget includes buying and maintaining foreign social media accounts on behalf of the police and propaganda departments. Still, others say Beijing continues to use targeted analysis to improve state media coverage abroad.
The size of the acquisitions allegedly ranges from small-automated programs to projects costing hundreds of thousands of dollars run 24 hours a day by teams including English speakers and foreign policy experts. In addition, the documents reveal highly customizable programs that can collect real-time data from individual social media users. Some describe monitoring general trends on issues, including the US elections.
According to the news, the data collected by the systems could not be reviewed. However, it is stated that the subject was spoken to four Beijing-based people who were directly involved in the government public opinion analysis. As a result, separate software systems are described that automatically collect Facebook and Twitter data and store it in real-time on local Chinese servers.
Accordingly, Twitter and Facebook are said to prohibit automatic data collection on their services without prior permission. It is also stated that Twitter’s policy explicitly prohibits developers from collecting data that is used to understand a user’s political affiliation or ethnic and racial origin.
Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said, referring to the company’s Application Programming Interface (API), which allows developers to pull public data from the platform, among others:
Our API provides real-time access to public data and Tweets only, not private information. Per our developer policy and terms, we prohibit the use of our API for surveillance purposes. China’s systems of online analysis of local public opinion are said to be a powerful but largely invisible pillar of President Xi Jinping’s program to modernize China’s propaganda apparatus and maintain control over the Internet. Comprehensive data collection and monitoring efforts give officials insight into public opinion in a country that does not hold public elections or allow independent media.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that the services are also increasingly providing technical surveillance for China’s censorship device, and many systems include alarm functions designed to alert authorities and police to negative content in real time. But it should not be forgotten that it is an important part of the policy of forming public opinion in favor of the government.
The full extent of the Chinese government’s public-monitoring industry is not yet known. However, there are some estimates of its size. In 2014, for example, the state-sponsored newspaper China Daily said that more than 2 million people worked as public opinion analysts. In 2018, the People’s Daily, another official publication, said that the government’s online opinion analysis industry was worth “tens of billions of yuan,” the equivalent of billions of dollars, and was growing at a rate of 50 percent per year. No one can yet predict where it will end. But we know that many states have similar practices and this is evident with evidence. In fact, the American computer scientist, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and former National Security Agency (NSA) employee Edward Snowden, has now taken refuge in Russia as the initiator of the leaks revealing the operating details of the global monitoring tools run by the NSA. If you wish, you can watch the movie Snowden, which was shot on this subject and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to learn more.
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