China cuts mobile service to Xinjiang residents by avoiding internet filters

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HONG KONG – The Chinese government is shutting down mobile service for residents of Xinjiang who use software that allows them to bypass internet filters, stepping up an already aggressive electronic surveillance strategy in the country’s western territory.

Starting last week, shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris, local police began cutting service to people who had downloaded foreign email services and other software, according to five people concerned.

The people, who spoke on condition of anonymity over concerns over retaliation by local security forces for speaking to foreign media, all said their telecom provider told them to go to a police station. local police to restore service.

“Due to a police notice, we will close your cell phone number within the next two hours according to the law,” read a text message received by one of the people, who lives in the regional capital of Urumqi. “If you have any questions, please consult the Cyber ​​Police affiliated with your neighborhood police station as soon as possible. “

The person said that when she called the police, she was told that the service suspensions were aimed at people who had not linked their identification to their account; used virtual private networks, or VPNs, to evade China’s system of internet filters, known as the Great Firewall; or downloaded a foreign messaging software, like WhatsApp or Telegram.

As debates continue in Europe and the United States over the level of encryption of communications sent through smartphone messaging apps that could mask terrorist plots by law enforcement, China’s decision underscores the determination of Beijing to control and monitor online information. The debate in the West also has an influence in China, said Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia director of Amnesty International in Hong Kong.

“While the West generally backs down in terms of protecting privacy and freedom of expression, China is comforted in its long-standing position that it is the arbiter of what can and cannot be said.” , did he declare.

The action also shows that despite billions of dollars spent to create one of the world’s most sophisticated internet censorship and surveillance systems, blind spots abound. The Chinese government has long focused on software that bypass the Great Firewall, such as virtual private networks. But the decision to suspend software-linked mobile phone accounts demonstrates a new level of urgency.

Beijing has at times stepped up its filters against VPNs and has taken increasingly aggressive steps over the past year to censor internet content. In March, China turned the Great Firewall into a powerful weapon that redirected inbound traffic to overseas sites it deemed hostile. The campaign for tighter internet control is led by Lu Wei, China’s internet czar since 2013, who has mastered social media and pleaded with tech executives and foreign policymakers to show “respect for national sovereignty ”on the Internet.

Any move to restrict VPN users across the country would most likely hamper foreign and local businesses. Both often require access to the global Internet, whether it’s to get market information, visit sites like Gmail, or put ads on Facebook.

Long a testing ground for experiments in Internet surveillance and censorship, Xinjiang is a hilly and sparsely populated region in western China. In 2009, the internet in the region was cut for almost six months after riots by the local Turkish-speaking Uyghur minority and Han Chinese. Since then, clashes between the government and Uyghurs, most of whom are Muslims and make up about 40% of Xinjiang’s population, have escalated.

Last week, China confirmed that a Chinese citizen held hostage by ISIS was killed. State media also reported that a recent raid killed 28 people believed to be linked to an earlier attack on a coal mine in Xinjiang.

Chinese authorities have recently been more vocal in accusing the internet of being used to spread religious extremism in the region. Human rights activists have warned that many residents of Xinjiang are radicalized by severe restrictions on Uyghur freedoms, not necessarily by foreigners.

“Xinjiang is really the frontier of Internet surveillance in China due to the problem of terrorism and the risk of violence,” Bequelin said.

China Unicom and China mobile, which are mobile operators, did not respond to requests for comment. A China Telecom operator in Xinjiang referred questions to the local cyber police. An official with the Urumqi City Police Department said the bans affected all three Chinese public carriers, but declined to comment further. Several complaints about the suspensions of Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog, appear to have been suppressed by censors late last week.

It is not known how many of Xinjiang’s roughly 20 million people were affected. One of the residents whose ward was closed said that when he went to Urumqi Police Station, there was a line of about 20 people, including several foreigners, waiting to ask the police to restore their mobile phone accounts.

He said he used a virtual private network to access Instagram and at the police station an officer “took my ID card and my cell phone for a few minutes, then returned them to me.” He added: “They told me the reason for my suspension was that I had ‘used software to break the great firewall’.

He said he was told his phone service would be suspended for three days, and added that he would no longer use virtual private networks. “It’s too embarrassing,” he said. “I just have to give up my Instagram from now on.”

Others said it was less clear when their phone numbers could be restored. A man who lives in Yining City said police there first checked his social media posts to see if he wrote anything touchy, then said they would report his case “for a closer examination “.

Mr Bequelin said the decision to suspend the accounts was most likely a calculated one, given that the complete Internet shutdown in 2009 raised issues across ethnic lines, with some protesting against Wang Lequan, the head of the Internet. the region at the time.

“The lesson from 2009 is that it was a bad idea,” he said. “If you shut down the Internet, you may end up with more people on the streets. “

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