Monday, June 08, 2009

Green Dam and GhostNet: How Nervous About the Chinese Should We Be?

Are they spies and creditors who mean us ill will, or will they save Western Civilization despite our own best efforts to scuttle it?

I've sounded alarms before (see here and here and here) that in our insatiable demand for cheap products and in our unwillingness to make tough budgetary choices, we've made a faustian bargain with the Chinese and their system of fascistic capitalism.

A few years back, IBM sold off their PC manufacturing division, which was performing poorly in comparison to their business in services. In stark contrast, Lenovo, the Chinese company that bought it, has done very well with it indeed.

Now, Lenovo, along with Dell, Hewlett-Packard and others, have been told by the Chinese government that they have until July 1st of this year to install "Green Dam" censoring software on all PCs sold in China. From today's New York Times article, China Requires Censoring on New PCs:
BEIJING — China has issued a sweeping directive requiring all personal computers sold in the country to include sophisticated software that can filter out pornography and other “unhealthy information” from the Internet.

The software, which manufacturers must install on all new PCs starting July 1, would allow the government to regularly update computers with an ever-changing list of banned Web sites.

The rules, issued last month in a government directive, ratchet up Internet restrictions that are already among the most stringent in the world. China regularly blocks Web sites that discuss the Dalai Lama, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, and the Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement.

But free-speech advocates say they fear the new software could make it even more difficult for China’s 300 million Internet users to obtain uncensored news and information...

Called “Green Dam” — a reference to slogans that describe a smut-free Internet as “green” — the software is designed to filter out sexually explicit images and words, according to the company that designed it. Computer experts, however, warn that once installed, the software could be directed to block all manner of content or allow the government to monitor Internet use and collect personal information...

PC makers who serve the Chinese market, among them Dell, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard, said they were studying the new rules and declined to comment. But privately, industry executives in the United States said they were unnerved by the new rules, which were issued by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology with no consultation and no advance warning...

This is not the first time that foreign companies have been enlisted in government efforts to police the Internet. Google already removes politically sensitive results yielded by its popular search engine, Microsoft allows censors to block content on its blog service and Yahoo was widely criticized for turning over information that was used to jail a journalist.

“I would advise dissidents to buy computers before July 1,” said Clothilde Le Coz of Reporters Without Borders...

A group of industry representatives met with American officials Monday to express their displeasure with the new rules, said Susan N. Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the United States Embassy in Beijing. “We view any attempt to restrict the free flow of information with great concern,” she said.

Manufacturers complain that they have had been given little guidance by Chinese authorities. “The wording may be intentionally vague but the message is clear: we have no choice in the matter,” said one computer executive who did not want to be named because some companies are hoping they can persuade the government to ease the requirements.

Industry experts and civil libertarians say they are worried the software may simply be a Trojan horse for greater Internet control. The software developers have ties to China’s military and public security agencies, they point out, and Green Dam’s backers say the effort is supported by Li Changchun, the country’s chief propaganda official and a member of decision-making body of the Communist Party, the Politburo Standing Committee...

The software will be provided free, paid for by the government, and according to the official Green Dam Web site, it has already been downloaded 3.2 million times...

In recent months China has tightened its Internet restrictions, including an “anti-vulgarity” campaign that has closed down thousands of pornographic sites but also nonsexual sites, including some of the most popular bulletin boards and blog hosts. China already employs more than 30,000 censors and thousands who “guide public opinion” by flooding bulletin boards with comments favorable to the Communist Party.

Last week, as the 20th anniversary of the military crackdown on Tiananmen approached, the government blocked a host of Internet services, including Twitter, Microsoft’s and Flickr, a photo-sharing site, though by Monday evening, these sites had become available again. YouTube has been inaccessible in mainland China since March.

Even beyond ethical concerns, those who have tested the new software describe it as technically flawed. One American software engineer said it leads machines to crash frequently. Others worry that it could leave tens of millions of computers vulnerable to hackers. So far, at least, there is no version for the Apple and Linux operating systems...

On Monday, Green Dam’s own Web site offered a hint of discontent over the filtering software. On the bulletin board section of the site, one writer described it as a “web devil” and several users complained that pornographic images slipped through or that their computers had become painfully slow. “It seems pretty lousy so far,” one posting said. “It’s not very powerful, I can’t surf the Internet normally and it’s affecting the operation of other software.”

By Monday night, however, most of the comments had been deleted.
I'm sure a lot of parents around the world, and not just in China, would be glad to have smut blocked from their kids, but at what price? What is the Chinese government really up to? Will the PC manufacturers knuckle under and cave like Google and Microsoft did? China is just too big a market, and they basically own us in just about every other respect too... I see no reason to doubt that they will cave.

There are other indications that China is looking at the militarization of the web and beefing up its cyber-warfare capabilities. Lots of people heard about the Conficker worm earlier this year, but I suspect that far fewer people have heard of Ghostnet. A Toronto-based research group was called in last year by Tibetan exiles and dissidents who had reason to believe that their computer networks had been infiltrated and compromised. The researchers discovered a malware distribution operation being run out of China which had infected businesses, media centers, embassies, foreign ministries, and government offices in 103 countries.

Listen to how the researchers cracked it on WBUR's On Point Program:

Unmasking ‘GhostNet’
OK, the April Fool’s computer virus didn’t strike, didn’t rise up with its “botnet” and take over the world. But maybe it didn’t have to.

Just days before, a crack team of computer sleuths in Canada unveiled a global computer spying network, apparently run out of China, called “GhostNet.”

It’s a spying operation that has reached into more than a thousand key computers around the world, rifling through high-security files, even turning on computers’ cameras and microphones to watch and listen from halfway round the world.

This hour, On Point: The team who cracked the “GhostNet.”

-Tom Ashbrook


Garpu said...

I've heard of GhostNet. The Frood allegedly found a piece of spyware on a client's computer that was strongly suspect.

I'm really not comfortable with Green Dam, either. Is it just a software thing? Sounds like something a person can wipe/reinstall/flash the BIOS and be fine. I'd expect a lot of Chinese users to switch to OSX, linux, or BSD.

I'd hope US computer companies tell them where to shove it, but they need money too badly.

Jeff said...

Hi Jen,

You know, I was watching a PBS Frontline program about "Tank Man" last night. This was about the guy who stood up alone in front of the Chinese tanks near Tiananmen Square back in 1989. None of the students who are currently attending Beijing universities had ever heard of him or seen the photos before. If you do a Google image search on Tiananmen Square here, the photo will show up. If you do the same search in China, it won't show up.

They showed a hearing in Washington a few years back where congressmen and senators were grilling Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft execs on why they were caving in to these Chinese censorship demands. They all made lame excuses about following the laws of the countries where they were doing business. Someone asked, "If you were doing business in a country where they demanded to have Anne Frank handed over, would you have done that?" No answer.

Garpu said...

We had a Chinese academic come and lecture on post-colonialism. Let's just say that he had an interesting interpretation of a lot of 20th century historical events, including Tibet (one of the professors there is a specialist in Tibetan music and had lived there during the 70's), and a few other time periods. The whole lecture was nothing but pro-Chinese government propaganda.

Remember when the Olympic flame was being carried through the US? UW students went on record that the Chinese government was paying them to counter-protest. hello? Was that $20 or $50 you got really worth it?

Scary stuff.

Jeff said...

"UW students went on record that the Chinese government was paying them to counter-protest. hello? Was that $20 or $50 you got really worth it?"

Is that a fact? For real?? Wow. I remember those special forces goons they had running with the torch-bearers, mugging everyone who got in their way regardless of whose country they happened to be in.

crystal said...

I recently read a novel that mentioned this stuff, by Richard Clarke - did a post about it. Kind of scary.

Jeff said...


Ah, you were on top of this and scooped it back in March... A novel by Richard Clarke, eh? I picked up a hardbound edition of "Against All Enemies" at the book swap at the recycling center in town last week. Haven't started it yet. My reading list is really getting backed up....

cowboyangel said...

Yeah, the companies will cave. I have no doubt. We're not really interested in reforming China. At least not until they begin to shrink as a market.

I'd heard about GhostNet, though not by that name. Cyberspace will be a major battlefield. I'm sure they're not the only ones engages in this sort of thing. They got caught. ECHELON has been up and running for a long time now, and the European Parliament has investigated reports that the U.S. has been using it for industrial espionage as well as military intelligence.

I imagine there's all kinds of battles and skirmishes going on that we know nothing about yet.

Jeff said...

Well, that may be so... Didn't First Data Corporation, Western Union, AT&T and a few of these other data-mining companies offer their assistance to the NSA after 9/11?

bobby fletcher said...

Um, "preinstall" in Chinese actually means "bundle". Take this 6/12 ZDNet article citing WSJ for example:

The end users were never required to install or run Green Dam. As to what Green Dam will filter, it is configuable by the user.

And no, Green Dam has not "call mothership" feature. But it does have a featur called "turn off".

Jeff said...

Long live Tank Man, wherever he is.