Beijing is using the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic as a justification to expand and intensify its already gargantuan internet surveillance systems, according to a report by Freedom House.
In its annual Freedom of the Net report, which details the state of digital surveillance in over 60 countries, the nonprofit ranked China last with a score of 10 out of 100. This is the sixth consecutive year in which the country was crowned as the “worst abuser of internet freedom” in the world.
“This pandemic is normalizing the sort of digital authoritarianism that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long sought to mainstream,” wrote Freedom House in a statement.
According to the report, Chinese authorities deployed both low- and high-technology to control the free flow of information through the internet regarding the state of the country’s coronavirus pandemic. It also used these technologies to prevent internet users from viewing independent news sources that challenge the CCP’s official narrative.
Freedom House also noted that, at the beginning of the pandemic, China attempted to downplay and erase the warnings made by medical professionals about the original coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. They also found out that fewer internet users in China are successfully bypassing the country’s Great Firewall, especially after Beijing strengthened its restrictions on people using virtual private networks to access blocked sites.
The report further states that in the first quarter of 2020 alone, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s main internet regulator, shut down 816 websites and deleted over 33,000 accounts and chat groups on their approved social media websites like Renren, Weibo and WeChat.
The massive expansion of the country’s internet surveillance effort has also caused the number of “censorship factories” to increase. These workplaces house thousands of internet censors that sweep the country’s online spaces with the help of artificial intelligence technology.
China isn’t the only country using COVID-19 to justify the expansion of internet surveillance capabilities. Both state and non-state actors are deploying new technologies that would have been regarded as far too intrusive at any given time before the global pandemic.
The other countries joining China at the bottom five are Iran, Syria, Cuba and Vietnam. The top five countries are Iceland, Estonia, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom. Despite being known as the second freest country in Asia, Taiwan was not included in the rankings.
Sarah Cook, a senior researcher for Freedom House, states that a lot of China’s new surveillance technology was first developed to guard the country against dissidents. In particular, Cook notes that tech developed against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang is now increasing in other parts of the country.
One such piece of anti-dissident tech is a handheld device that authorities can use to scan people’s smartphones and pull data from them without the owner’s consent. (Related: “Return to China or commit suicide:” FBI Director says China’s “Fox Hunt” program a way to silence and imprison Chinese dissidents abroad.)
“China’s government already was sitting on the most sophisticated and multilayered censorship and internet control apparatus around the world,” said Cook.
Existing anti-dissident surveillance technology is also being refined for the pandemic era. Back in March, when the coronavirus was just beginning to spread like wildfire throughout the world, China was already close to upgrading its facial recognition technology in order to identify people wearing masks.
Other technologies, both old and new, are also being used to violate the personal privacy of Chinese citizens, such as forcing people to use an app that tracks infections and forcing people to place webcams in their homes and outside their doors to track their movements. Cook says these systems have backdoors that allow the police to surveil people whenever they please.
According to Cook, the spread of the pandemic is directly tied to the expansion of the CCP’s control of speech on the internet.