The US-based rights group, Freedom House, said today that China tops the charts as one of the world's worst offenders of internet censorship. The World's Clark Boyd has details.
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LISA MULLINS: A new report on global Internet freedom was published today. It's by the U.S. based rights group Freedom House. The report singles China out as one of the worst offenders when it comes to limiting what people can see, and say, online. But China may be doing more than just blocking access, as we hear from The World's Clark Boyd.
CLARK BOYD: It's common knowledge that China has one of, if not the most, sophisticated and pervasive internet filtering systems in the world. Those technical controls are reinforced by harsh legal penalties for those who say things online that the government doesn't like. But Freedom House found that Chinese authorities also have a system for influencing online conversation.
KARIN KARLEKAR: They have literally thousands of people that are paid to post pro-government content.
CLARK BOYD: Karin Karlekar is managing editor of the Freedom on the Net project.
KARIN KARLEKAR: The manipulation is something that's, I think, a little bit newer. I think governments basically face this problem where they want to allow some access to the internet, so governments are trying to find ways to, sort of, I think, manipulate in more subtle ways, and censor in more subtle ways.
CLARK BOYD: The Freedom House report comes on the heels of other research on China released last Saturday. It's the work of something called the Information Warfare Monitor. That's a collaboration between a Canadian think tank and the Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto group that monitors internet access worldwide. Ten months ago, the group began investigating some claims made by Tibetan exile groups in northern India. Those exile groups were convinced their computer systems and Internet traffic had been compromised. Using a combination of field research and computer forensics, University of Toronto researchers found that someone had, in fact, taken control of those Tibetan groups' machines. Researcher Nart Villeneuve explains.
NART VILLENEUVE: You can just imagine what an attacker could do with this kind of tool in place, from retrieving all of the documents to recording all of the keystrokes, sending e-mail as if it was you, because it really is coming from your e-mail client on your computer.
CLARK BOYD: But the question remained: Who took control of those computers? The group dug a bit deeper, says principal investigator Ron Deibert.
RON DEIBERT: Once we were on the system, we realized that it was much larger than Tibetan organizations. We had uncovered an apparent system of cyber-espionage that involved 1,295 computers in 103 countries.
CLARK BOYD: They dubbed that system "GhostNet." It was designed to run in the background, without anyone knowing it was there. Nearly 30 percent of GhostNet's targets were "high-profile:" embassies, foreign ministries, diplomatic missions. So far, there are no reports of U.S. government computers being affected. Geographically, the targets were centered in south and Southeast Asia. Deibert says it looked like "a radar sweeping China's southern borders." And while there is much circumstantial evidence pointing to official Chinese involvement in GhostNet, Deibert says it's just that, circumstantial.
RON DEIBERT: The fact that the computers, at least some of them, that were involved in this attack are located in China is really not convincing evidence because just as we were able to log onto the control servers here in Toronto, anyone could have broken into those computers and used them as a proxy, as a staging ground, to disguise their true location.
CLARK BOYD: Deibert says that his group would have to break the law to try to prove official Chinese involvement in GhostNet. And it's not about to do that. For its part, the Chinese government dismissed the report's conclusions. A spokesman said "the attempt to tarnish China with such lies is doomed to failure." For the World, this is Clark Boyd.