China fights lockdown protests by targeting smartphones – DW – 12/01/2022
Authorities in cities across China are using sophisticated surveillance methods to quell anti-lockdown demonstrations, according to lawyers and protesters.
Several sources told DW that police in big cities like Shanghai have been randomly checking people’s phones on the street or on the subway. The police have demanded that people provide personal information and immediately remove apps such as Telegram, Twitter or Instagram.
Others have said they were called by the police and had their phones searched by authorities.
“The police warned me against using Telegram and told me to stop sharing information about the pandemic through the software,” said a protester surnamed Lin, who declined to be identified by his full name for security reasons.
“I was not stopped on the street. I suspect that the police may have discovered that I have been using Telegram. I received two separate calls from the police warning me not to share anything about the pandemic or the protests. My father also received a threatening call from them ,” he told DW.
Shengsheng Wang, a lawyer who has provided legal assistance to more than 20 protesters across China, told DW that police have arrested people and confiscated phones.
“The police’s priority has been to access the protesters’ phones,” she said. “Although some of them were able to get their phones back after they were released, others still couldn’t get their phones back from the police even after they were released.”
According to Wang, several protesters in Guangzhou told her that after providing personal ID numbers to the police, there were attempts to log into their Telegram accounts.
– The hacking attempts happened when they had their phones, and since the same thing happened to several protesters, it doesn’t seem like a pure coincidence, she said.
Other protesters in Beijing told Wang they received calls from the police after stopping briefly at the site of the protest, without being confronted by authorities.
“They didn’t understand why they and their friends were all called by the police a day after they stopped by the protest,” she said. “A reasonable suspicion is that police may have used surveillance technology to locate the protesters’ phones at a specific location and time,” she added.
Apart from protesters receiving threats from the police, Wang has been temporarily banned from sending group messages or sharing statuses on the Chinese messaging app WeChat.
“I’ve also been avoiding calls from my law firm because I know they want to send the message from the local court department to me,” she said.
China’s surveillance state
Lokman Tsui, a research fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity think tank, told DW that it is possible for Chinese police to determine which phones were in a specific location at a specific time.
“Because China is a surveillance state with little regard for the rule of law or human rights, this is not difficult for them,” he said.
“A fairly simple way is to go to the telco and ask them which phone number is connected to which cell tower at what time. This can be imprecise and error-prone, but if your goal is to intimidate protesters, and not get a conviction in court, then this would fit the bill,” he added.
Lawyer Wang says most protesters summoned by the police and asked to provide evidence do not yet face any legal risk.
“They have definitely been ‘educated’ and told that they should stop participating in similar protests in the future,” she said. “If there is sufficient evidence to prove that they are the source of important information or organizers of certain protests, they can be accused of criminals.”
Other analysts say that since the protests have been very spontaneous, most participants were not prepared to join in advance.
– Some of the young protesters have never participated in demonstrations like this before, so they do not have the experience of knowing how to protect themselves, says Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“Even some experienced protesters in China will still be arrested by the police, which shows that it is difficult to protect against all the risks. There will be different degrees of risk, and they should try their best to protect themselves under those circumstances ,” she told DW.
Patrick Poon, a researcher at the Institute of Comparative Law at Meiji University in Japan, said Chinese citizens who have participated in protests or who are still participating in demonstrations should consider removing sensitive apps from their phones.
“One way to protect yourself is to delete the sensitive apps,” he told DW. “Instead of relying on a particular messaging app, they should also consider diversifying the apps they use to communicate with others.”
While most protesters will surely fear the potential consequences of joining more protests after being called by the police, HRW’s Wang said the crackdown could encourage others.
“Some people may never participate in a demonstration again, but others may become real activists,” she told DW. “All activists have to go through these trials and challenges because no one is naturally brave.”
Edited by: Wesley Rahn