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The Thicker China's "Great Firewall" Becomes, the Subtler the Doors to Sneak Through

BY Rebecca Chao | Wednesday, June 19 2013

ABOVE: China's Great Firewall at work (flickr/Chidorian)

One bitterly cold evening last fall in Beijing, I arrived half an hour early for a dinner with a friend, and unable to stand the dusty, biting winds, I ducked into an Internet café to check my email and bide the time. I was surprised that – unlike in 2008 when I first visited China – I was told I could not use their computers unless, as a foreigner, I provided the details of my passport, which I simply did not carry with me day-to-day. It was a taste of the new real name registration system that launched shortly thereafter in December 2012, which requires users of online sites like Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, to register information from their “shenfenzheng” or personal identification card in order to operate an account.

Now, China’s Ministry of Public Security is ramping up efforts to implement this tracking system. The Ministry announced in March that it is partnering with Beijing-based GZT Network Technology Inc. (北京国政通网络科技有限公司) to run the tech side of its registration system, allowing it to be more stringent than before. The new system, using a platform called ID5, would now require users to supply their registration number in order to check it against the security bureau’s database. Once their registration information is verified, a code would be sent back to the user’s mobile phone and inputted to register the account.

Existing regulations already require customers to provide identity papers when signing up for an Internet service. Users of mobile phones are also required to register with their identity card. The real name registration is therefore very much an adaption of the existing surveillance system to new technologies.

Even so, tech savvy citizens are finding their way around these restrictive policies.

One loophole net users have discovered is that China does not require real name registration for foreign Weibo users. By using a simple virtual private network (VPN), which can be easily purchased online for a couple yuan a month, users can log onto the Internet as if they were in the U.S. or Germany or Hong Kong (or constantly switch between multiple countries to avoid detection) and open a foreign Weibo account. It is difficult to measure how widely VPNs are used in China but 63.5 million Chinese currently use Facebook, which is banned.

Some Chinese web users have even developed their own programs to circumvent registration.

The China Media Project run by Hong Kong University notes the popularity of “personal ID generation tool” software (身份证生成器) that can be easily downloaded via the Internet. One example is Tool 7001. While still in beta, it can generate up to 999 fake identification numbers if you enter a false location and birthdate. It’s not clear where these numbers come from, how often identification numbers must be switched to evade detection, or how well it would stand up to the new ID5. However, one user got away for some time masquerading as President Obama at an Internet café. The fake ID listed Obama’s correct birthdate, used the White House as a home address but noted “Kenya” as Obama’s native country.

ABOVE: A screen shot of the website reveals a series of identification numbers generated from a random birthdate.

Even at the height of the crackdown on Internet freedom, during the momentous power transition in the fall of 2012, Chinese citizens still found ways to get on censored sites. When the Chinese government blocked VPNs on a large scale, though purportedly more so in Beijing than in an economic capital like Shanghai, users found a way to circumvent the disruption by using modified host files, which contain a set of IP addresses they can directly input to access blocked sites. Paul Mozur of the Wall Street Journal explained in a video that a search for “modifying host file” turned up 400,000 pages of searches. Mozur also notes that information on censorship evasion is shared at a frequent enough rate online that it would be impossible for censors to block all of the information.

Despite the brief lockdown last fall, it would be highly unlikely that China implement a long term blockage of VPNs as it would be disruptive to business, both domestic and foreign. These blocks, coupled with Internet slow downs, hindered foreigners and natives alike from completing simple tasks like sending an email through Gmail.

“China, with their globalized economy and growth rate, obviously cannot completely isolate themselves from the global Internet or it would exact a significant cost on their economy,” a spokesman for the VPN provider Witopia told the Wall Street Journal. “They just seem to like to remind everyone that they are the boss of their corner of the Internet and they will integrate with the rest of us at their own pace.”

Even without evasion tactics, the Chinese government cannot exhaustively monitor the growing body of half a billion Chinese Internet users (roughly 38 percent of the country’s population). It will only become more grueling to check free speech online as these Internet users increasingly access the web from mobile devices that can be easily replaced or switched out.

There is power in numbers and China has plenty.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.