Sorry China, No More ‘Sexting’

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china restricts and monitors text
China requires its mobile phone companies to report on "criminal activity" including lewd txts.

Censorship in China just got a little kinky. Chinese mobile phone users wanting to send that special someone a scandalous text message should think twice. According to the Telegraph, China’s two largest mobile phone companies (China Mobile and China Unicom) are complying with police demands to report any and all text messages that contain illegal activity. While this is ostensibly to help combat violent crime and terrorism, pornography and “inapropriate messages” are also included. China Mobile alone has 500+ million customers and handles 1.7+ billion text messages a day. Accordingly, the telecom companies are using software filters to automatically block a users text service once it detects a risque message. The same would happen for texts which indicated a terrorist activity or other crime. The sheer scope of this censorship is daunting and its extension into sexting is alarming. China is monitoring billions of texts every day for criminal activity…and the definition of “criminal” is loose enough to be terrifying.

Extension government monitoring of personal communication isn’t restricted to China of course. The Department of Homeland Security in the US has routinely tapped phone lines (illegally in some cases) and Europe’s Project Indect is going to be a vast undertaking to examine all levels of personal activity and online communication. Most of these projects are geared towards “combating terrorism” but China’s example shows that the same systems used to detect violent intent can be twisted to report on all kinds of “thought crime.” One hopes that a democratically elected government wouldn’t take the same approach as an autocratic one and seek to curb the freedom of its citizens. Still, there’s no longer any doubt that mobile phones communications are vulnerable to this type of oppression.

The Global Times, a major Chinese periodical, recently reported that automatic blocks for SMS messages have extended beyond the contents of the message. Any user sending texts to large numbers of recipients will have their service blocked for 24 hours. This action has been taken to curb the rise of spam texts, which is a legitimate and growing problem in the country. Considering the role that mass-texts play in modern civil disobedience, however, the measure may finally help China stifle protests. It’s already an inconvenience to average users who simply wish to send well wishes to loved ones on holidays.

Those violating the effective ban on sexting face much more than simple inconvenience. According to the Southern Metropolis Weekly (via Telegraph) a man in Dongguan whose service was blocked after a sext was told that he had to report to the police and identify himself before his service would be reinstated. HOLY CRAP. Not only is your service going to be blocked, you then have to turn yourself in for what may constitute a crime. All for simply sending a (uncouth) personal message. That’s nine kinds of wrong. As discussed in the Global Times, it’s possible that all mobile phones will have to be registered with a citizen’s real name. So even if you don’t want to report to the police they’ll still find you.

I try not to wear my conspiracy hat too often (aluminum foil is terribly flimsy) but this latest bout of Chinese censorship has me worried along many different angles. I’m alarmed that a government is lumping sexuality in with terrorism. I’m alarmed that the tools by which protesters can organize themselves are also primed to restrict and monitor their activities. I’m alarmed that any company would help target its own customers as criminals. But most of all I’m concerned about the effective destruction of anonymity.

Privacy is changing. Social networking, life logging, CCTV cameras – these technologies are recording and reporting on our lives in ways that would have been outrageous just a generation ago. Many companies are already tracking our finances and online activities to better target us as consumers. We even have iPhone Apps to check your date’s criminal history. But coupled with the arrival of new torrents of personal information is the benefit of being lost in the crowd. As many of the comments on this blog will prove, Google may know what you like to buy, but they aren’t going to let me track you down when you make an asinine remark about my writing. That’s the boon (and bane) of anonymity. Computers and software algorithms are watching you, but the rest of us really can’t.

The China automatic block of sexting is a reminder that such protection is tenuous. All it takes is the consent of telecom companies and the acceptance of citizens to strip away anonymity and effectively use technology to restrict your freedom. Yeah…there’s not much more to it than that.

I really do believe that biometric security checks, CCTV surveillance, even online monitoring could be used to make us safer from violent crime without oppressing us. Only if, however, such measures are themselves constantly examined and regulated. There’s no doubt that we have the ability to monitor each other and that ability isn’t going to disappear. We can’t hide, not even in a billion text messages a day. The question is, will we choose to follow China’s example of censorship and restriction…or will we find another way?

[photo credit: modified from Wiki Commons]