Sat, Mar 19, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Information revolution and state security

By Peter Mattis

The Liaoning Provincial State Security Department last month set up a tip-line allowing Chinese citizens who witness violations of state security to text alerts to the department. At the same time, the Ministry of State Security’s (MSS) Liaoning office disconnected its phone line. Adapting to modernity in this way suggests that the ministry is making an effort to keep up with the times as the younger generation embraces new forms of communications and information technologies. This in turn raises serious questions about the typical Western narrative that blithely assumes the free flow of information will inevitably challenge Beijing’s ability to maintain stability.

Such changes seem minor, but the MSS’ growing mastery of the information revolution was one of the main reasons academics with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) concluded that the ministry’s influence was on the rise.

Western commentators typically and optimistically view new communications technology, especially social media, as a challenge to state power. The basis for this claim is that technology allows individuals to circumvent government control. This may well be true, but Beijing has chosen a path that does not involve total control. The infamous “Fifty Cent Party” of citizens paid to influence debate and stifle anti-government Internet posts suggests that Beijing has decided that a more subtle hand today, could avoid the need for an iron fist tomorrow.

However, information technology offers the MSS and other internal security organizations an opportunity to more easily identify key people or communications nodes for dissenting groups. The electronic breadcrumbs left behind allow investigators to trace and mine Internet servers for user activity. The more active users are, the easier it is for them to be identified. The principal MSS targets are individuals who hold together a rich web of dissident communication.

There are many new tools for communication and control, but social media in particular are a double-edged sword. While they allow users to transmit data rapidly across an online community, the same tools enhance the security services’ ability to identify which individuals are most important when it comes to connecting geographically disparate groups of users. In China, where the nightmare scenario is a series of connected, rather than individual, mass incidents, the capability to identify key users is vital to the government’s efforts to ensure disputes remain local.

The move from personal to virtual meeting spaces also gives the security services a much overlooked tool to lure dissidents out into the open. Social engineering — an alleged Chinese tool for gaining access to networks — also enables the security services to engineer personal contacts and flush out otherwise anonymous users.

The optimists insist such security efforts are doomed to fail, but the aftermath of the disputed Iranian elections in June suggests otherwise. Iranian security services analyzed Facebook and Twitter activity and started pinpointing troublesome users at home and abroad. Although we do not know what happened inside Iran to such users, many Iranian immigrants received phone calls from relatives in Iran where family members passed the telephone to security officers who had made the call.

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