Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

The China Conundrum and its implications for international cyber-security – 12

Posted in business and convergent technologies by Timothy Platt on June 6, 2011

The harder you squeeze, the more fragile your grip – This is my twelfth installment in an ongoing series on China and its impact on global economies and on global information systems and cyber-security (see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time, with postings starting at 69 in this directory.) And the word “conundrum” in this series’ title particularly applies in this installment.

I have written a number of times about China’s Golden Shield Project, as formally owned by their Ministry of Public Security, an organizational entity operating under the aegis of their State Council. I have also written at least a little about the sometimes complex and even contradictory patterns of authority that this program, also colloquially called the Great Firewall of China operates under, and how its system carries its own internal flaws that would limit its ability to carry out its stated mission of censorship and surveillance. As extensive and far reaching as the Golden Shield Project is, it has only been one of a still larger array of cyber-control initiatives, each with its own bureaucracy and its own turf-defending leadership.

Early last month China’s State Council Information Office set up a new subordinate agency within itself, the State Council Internet Information Office, that appears to be taking on the role of organizing, managing, coordinating, and “owning” the civilian access and production of online information as a core component of their overall governmental cyber-security program. Their goal, if my assessment is correct, is to serve as a single organizing clearinghouse of information on online activity and on who is doing what, with a closely related function of providing a single overarching management and ownership capability to help identify and close gaps in their systems.

China has long realized that their online censorship and surveillance systems have been leaking, and not just from the smaller number of high-profile cases and instances that rise to the attention of the international press. So they try to secure their grip more soundly by squeezing still harder.

• Suppression of open conversation online leads to subterfuge as to source of social media and other voices shared. And that leads to increased opportunity to add disinformation and other, related challenges to governmentally maintained order from the outside – and in ways that mean China’s watchdogs cannot tell if they are from the inside or from outside of the People’s Republic.

Proxy servers, and anonymizer servers and networks set up on the fly to hide the identities of parties sharing information online (among a wide range of approaches in use) make this possible. And to paraphrase a line from a still way too recent period of China’s history with their aborted Hundred Flowers Campaign, China’s ongoing effort to stifle the online conversation, bending and limiting it to the will of centralized control means forcing the development of a situation that promotes “a hundred (anonymously sourced) flowers blossom(ing) and a hundred (visible but anonymous) schools of thought contend(ing).”

And with identities of source hidden, not only does the State Council have to worry about what they never see at all that is flowing through online, they cannot readily tell what is home-grown and local in what they do see and what may simply be outside disinformation. And I come back to those online calls for protest in China that looked to be modeled on protests roiling the Middle East in earlier months this year, and the prospects that this might reflect internal opinion and internal calls to action. But it could just as easily by coming from and directed from outside of the People’s Republic.

• Who outside of Mainland China would see benefit from China’s State Council, working under orders and with the authority of its Politburo, tying China’s internet into tight, restrictive knots?

I leave this as an open question, simply noting that as China vies for prominence and even dominance in the world economic stage, they challenge others who would see themselves challenged and even limited by this. And as important as they are and certainly for China’s long term stability, economic considerations collectively constitute only one source of possible motivation here that outsiders might wish to act in response to.

Where have those Middle East reformer modeled calls for protest come from? The harder China’s central government squeezes to limit and control the message, the less likely they are to know such things where it really counts, and certainly where this type of challenge might be mounted with professional skill and care as an outside disinformation campaign, perhaps piggybacked onto more internal and China-sourced anonymized online channels.

I finish this posting with a thought from China’s own history that goes back some 26 centuries. In the Tao Te Ching, a philosophical and religious work attributed to Lao Tsu, in the sixtieth section of the work is a poem that conveys a message, that “ruling a big country is like cooking a small fish” insofar as too much handling spoils it. The basic message I would convey here is well known even if not always in the more limited online and cyber-context I would pose it in here, and it has been so known for a very long time.

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