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Researchers Made a Fake Social Network To Infiltrate China's Internet Censors

Soulskill posted about 3 months ago | from the inside-job dept.

Censorship 49

Jason Koebler writes: In order to get inside China's notorious internet filter, Harvard researcher Gary King created his own fake social network to gain access to the programs used to censor content, so he could reverse-engineer the system. "From inside China, we created our own social media website, purchased a URL, rented server space, contracted with one of the most popular software platforms in China used to create these sites, submitted, automatically reviewed, posted, and censored our own submissions," King wrote in a study published in Science. "We had complete access to the software; we were even able to get their recommendations on how to conduct censorship on our own site in compliance with government standards."

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I skipped to the ending (2, Interesting)

paiute (550198) | about 3 months ago | (#47729885)

...and then we publicized the hell out of it to make sure that the Chinese government would see it and crack down even harder on net access. But I got to write this paper and put it on my CV.

Re:I skipped to the ending (4, Interesting)

i kan reed (749298) | about 3 months ago | (#47729973)

the Chinese government would see it and crack down even harder on net access

Um, how, exactly?

It's not like they're going to change their standards over this. What allowed this to happen is that the task of censorship is so time consuming and broad that the government had to outsource some of the work to the site runners.

(Government) censorship is always top-heavy, and always relies on a degree of volunteerism from the populace. The most this researcher did is made the government a bit more paranoid about the actions of foreign nationals.

Studying governments and cultures is an important branch of academia, and while it was ethically questionable, it's still entirely within the domain of critical examination.

Re:I skipped to the ending (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47730271)

So you don't think there is any chance that they might tweak the algorithms used to make the findings in the paper irrelevant? It basically says that they reverse engineered the software. Whenever some black hat SOE jack nut does that to Google's page rank algorithm Google changes it. Seems the Chinese Government could change theirs too...

Re:I skipped to the ending (1)

i kan reed (749298) | about 3 months ago | (#47730495)

The paper isn't a security research paper. They're social scientists trying to put a tighter pinpoint on the behaviors and methods of the Chinese government.

Re: I skipped to the ending (0)

ShieldW0lf (601553) | about 3 months ago | (#47730609)

Espionage is not science. There's this thing called the scientific method, look it up.

I hope this guys career ends it the toilet. It takes a real scumbag to carry off this kind of hoax.

Re: I skipped to the ending (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47730689)

How is this espionage? This is more like undercover cop.

Re: I skipped to the ending (1)

gabebear (251933) | about 3 months ago | (#47731269)

Espionage is not science. blah blah blah...

Espionage can be science!

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'" - Isaac Asimov

Re: I skipped to the ending (1)

KamikazeSquid (3611985) | about 3 months ago | (#47731437)

How on earth does this make him a "scumbag" and why do you want his career to fail, exactly?

Re: I skipped to the ending (0)

ShieldW0lf (601553) | about 3 months ago | (#47732819)

How on earth does this make him a "scumbag" and why do you want his career to fail, exactly?

Ever heard of something called integrity? This man has none. He crafted a huge lie and operated under false pretenses. Who cares why he did it? He did it. Nothing he says or does can be trusted now. People who spread lies and misinformation like this JUSTIFY censorship.

Re: I skipped to the ending (2)

KamikazeSquid (3611985) | about 3 months ago | (#47732873)

What? Dude, no. Government censorship is a huge human rights issue. Any research or investigative journalism that uncovers more details about it in any context is a good thing.

Re: I skipped to the ending (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47733507)

Does anyone else feel like these past few commenters are Chinese-government-sponsored shills?

Re: I skipped to the ending (1)

Teranolist (3658793) | about 3 months ago | (#47733979)

I don't know why, but I fell an urgent itch to say "fuck you"

Re: I skipped to the ending (1)

Jason Goatcher (3498937) | about 3 months ago | (#47736901)

The scientific method doesn't cover all science, just things like physics and chemistry. There's also things like detective work, which is more about predicting behavior based on past behavior.

Re:I skipped to the ending (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47729999)

...and then we publicized the hell out of it to make sure that the Chinese government would see it and crack down even harder on net access. But I got to write this paper and put it on my CV.

If that's the ultimate censorship case for China? Air-Gapping the whole world and using its own countrywide Intranet? And maybe even requiring South Korean style Real Name policy with every site used, maybe even forcing everyone who wants net access to go to a public library because private homes are blocked from having internet access?

Re:I skipped to the ending (2, Interesting)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about 3 months ago | (#47731895)

If that's the ultimate censorship case for China? Air-Gapping the whole world and using its own countrywide Intranet?

No. China is not going to do that. People in the West often misunderstand the Great Firewall of China (GFoC). It is relatively easy to bypass, and Chinese people are generally better informed about what is going on in the world than people in most other countries. Keeping information out is not really the point. In the West, there are three types of information: 1) Information that the government approves of and promotes, 2) Information that the government prohibits (child porn, holocaust denialism, videos of journalist beheadings, etc), and 3) information that the government tolerates or just doesn't care about. But in China (and many other countries) the third category doesn't exist. If people see something, and the government isn't banning it, then they assume it has the government's approval. So part of the reason for the GFoC is to say "This isn't official information". People can bypass the GFoC, and see the information, but they know the government has disapproved. Chinese people also have a very different view of dissent. in the West, toleration of dissent is a symbol of strength, and being thin skinned about criticism is viewed as weakness. When Obama lashed out at Fox News a few years ago, he was factually correct, but it still made him look small and petty. But in other countries, including China and Russia, if someone in power is criticized, and they don't fight back, they are viewed as weak. The Chinese Communist Party has no democratic mandate, and no legitimacy other than power, so they cannot afford to look weak. So the GFoC is really a symbol of strength and power rather than an attempt to actually block information.

Re:I skipped to the ending (2)

wooppp (921578) | about 3 months ago | (#47733095)

Ha ha, beware of what you are doing by bypassing the GFoC. The Chinese government can keep track of your escaping access, but they won't use it to victimize you until they have a political need to do so.

Re:I skipped to the ending (2)

Dan East (318230) | about 3 months ago | (#47733749)

Wow, how did this bit of nonsense get modded up.

Chinese people are generally better informed about what is going on in the world than people in most other countries.

Do you care to back this statement up? In what way are they better informed, and which countries fall into the "most other countries" category that are less informed than the Chinese public in general? I can only think of a few countries with more censorship then China.

Information that the government prohibits (child porn, holocaust denialism, videos of journalist beheadings, etc)

You're only one for three there. That's worse than dumb luck.

Re:I skipped to the ending (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47734173)

Chinese people are generally better informed about what is going on in the world than people in most other countries.

Do you care to back this statement up?

Alternatively, do you care to UNback this statement?

Re:I skipped to the ending (1)

zaphirplane (1457931) | about 3 months ago | (#47735517)

Wow, how did this bit of nonsense get modded up.

Chinese people are generally better informed about what is going on in the world than people in most other countries.

Do you care to back this statement up? In what way are they better informed, and which countries fall into the "most other countries" category that are less informed than the Chinese public in general?

I like what you did there, with the pointless yet seemingly going somewhere questions, can I try.

I can only think of a few countries with more censorship then China.

Do you care to back this statement up ? how many is a few countries ? which countries are they ?
Do you care to back this statement up ? in what way is the censorship more in those countries, how is the censorship measured, where is your citation ?

err probably made a mortal enemy for life, but though it was funny. !

Information that the government prohibits (child porn, holocaust denialism, videos of journalist beheadings, etc)

You're only one for three there. That's worse than dumb luck.

Re:I skipped to the ending (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47734851)

Yes, we misunderstand China's censorship. And here where we have no such censorship, thus we are free to spend all our time reading about a comedian's suicide, or about the size of various parts of female Kardashians, instead of reading political commentary. Aren't we so much better off?

Re:I skipped to the ending (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47730219)

hurrrrrr research bad

Re:I skipped to the ending (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47730725)

The paper is also "paywalled".. Ironic?

Re:I skipped to the ending (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47731727)

Re:I skipped to the ending (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47731017)

Have you all finished patting yourselves on your backs yet. You were most undubiously watched by the cHINESE govt and to what end that is for now unknown. Languish in your accomplishment for now, but don't get too excited over it.

Re:I skipped to the ending (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47731297)

Suck authoritarian cock much?

Re:I skipped to the ending (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47731987)

These guys deserve a big Fuck Yeah for their work.

Any time you force a despotic entity to work harder to enforce its authoritarian bullshit on others, you push the balance back in favor of freedom. History also suggests that this tends to hasten the decline of corrupt institutions. Violence is not the only means to that end, nor even the appropriate one in many instances. There is only one way to deal with institutional secrecy/corruption and that is to expose it. It hurts when it happens, but that's the price of freedom. You can take steps to end it now or you can die of the cancer.

Of course (2)

penguinoid (724646) | about 3 months ago | (#47729939)

If you want random strangers to do your censoring for you, expect random strangers to know the details on what you want censored.

Re:Of course (1)

i kan reed (749298) | about 3 months ago | (#47730039)

The abstract linked in the summary doesn't even suggest the paper contains a list of "what" is censored. It's more about "how" its supposed to be censored.

Qualifications about processes for popular users, manual deletion, automatic deletion, when to user ban, when to IP ban. They only briefly mention a few specific keywords: riot, terrorism, masses.

Re:Of course (1)

penguinoid (724646) | about 3 months ago | (#47730431)

The abstract linked in the summary doesn't even suggest the paper contains a list of "what" is censored. It's more about "how" its supposed to be censored.

If the censor doesn't censor it, then it's not censored. The keywords tell you what the government wishes to censor, the algorithms tell you what the government does censor. If the two don't match, it means either the government is failing to censor stuff it wishes to censor, or is incidentally censoring stuff it doesn't want to censor.

!infiltration (4, Informative)

AmiMoJo (196126) | about 3 months ago | (#47729943)

They didn't "infiltrate" the censors, they just got the same standard access to tools and communication channels as any other random social network site in China. This tells us absolutely nothing that isn't already public information if you simply read Chinese posts by people who have used the system.

Re:!infiltration (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47729983)

Research in humanities isn't real until somebody from the West does it.

Re:!infiltration (2)

i kan reed (749298) | about 3 months ago | (#47730049)

Research in general isn't "real" until it's in a published journal someone can cite in the future. There's like a "purity of information" thing.

Also: social and political science isn't humanities.

Re:!infiltration (1)

zlives (2009072) | about 3 months ago | (#47730659)

"Also: social and political science isn't humanities" or science

Re:!infiltration (1)

i kan reed (749298) | about 3 months ago | (#47731635)

or science

Not absolutely in a purist sense, no. It's less oriented on documenting fundamental and immutable phenomena that the universe operates on.

Howerver:
It certainly uses the scientific method. Modern social science(less so political science) is predicated on using objective measures, falsification, and experimentation.
It definitely is intended to provide useful predictive models.
There is the expectation of academic rigor, peer review, and ideas standing with respect to tradition(except inasmuch as tradition itself is studied).
It's not the "social studies" you were forced to write dozens of boring papers on in high school, actual modern social scientists are much more interested in fact that opinion.

!infiltration (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47730183)

The (English speaking) public doesn't read Chinese posts, but they might if posted by Harvard, since you know... it's in English.

But he's using the cloud! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47731903)

The fucking cloud!! This makes him 10x specialer than all of us.

People of China (1)

mdsolar (1045926) | about 3 months ago | (#47730005)

Unite! There, now this won't be seen for sure.

Re:People of China (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47734567)

Nope we can still see it here in China

purchased a URL (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47730059)

"purchased a URL"

Where do they sell URLs?

I've only ever managed to buy domains.

Re:purchased a URL (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47730239)

"buy domains"
Where to they sell domains?
I've only ever managed to rent domains.

Re:purchased a URL (1)

watcher-rv4 (2712547) | about 3 months ago | (#47730261)

I thought the same. Purchase a URL. By this statement you can see the level of the research.

Re:purchased a URL (2)

Zero__Kelvin (151819) | about 3 months ago | (#47730619)

Or you could, you know, see the level of research by actually reading the paper.

Deja Hu (0)

mrex (25183) | about 3 months ago | (#47730751)

So Chinese people are allowed to say whatever they want with their little tiny microphones that nobody hears. The government only gets involved when a message seems to reverberate through the public and actually threaten to cause the citizens to rise up.

That totally doesn't sound familiar *at all*.

misleading? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47730837)

Am I alone in thinking this is misleading?
"
"We had complete access to the software, documentation, help forums, and extensive consultation with support staff; we were even able to get their recommendations on how to conduct censorship on our own site in compliance with government standards," he continued.
"

WOW, what a shock, they helped you enforce their laws?

Next time I go to the DMV i will produce a research paper on how I reverse engineered the process of getting a drivers license(AKA posting their instruction booklet).

Re:misleading? (1)

magarity (164372) | about 3 months ago | (#47731149)

WOW, what a shock, they helped you enforce their laws?

No, laws are made by statute which are passed by the governing assembly bodies when those are in session, Statutes are almost always available to the public with only modest effort or even published freely. These censorship standards are regulatory in nature which means not only do they change at the whim of the administering beaurocrats but also (especially in less democratic countries like China) unpublished to the public and either require significant effort to obtain or aren't available at all.

good point (1)

neoedmund (986909) | about 3 months ago | (#47731451)

There is the very point where Chinese get punished without knowing why, an area where law not reached *yet*.

How to organise a protest (1)

paj1234 (234750) | about 3 months ago | (#47732737)

From the article: "Chinese people can write the most vitriolic blog posts about even the top Chinese leaders without fear of censorship, but if they write in support of or opposition to an ongoing protest—or even about a rally in favor of a popular policy or leader—they will be censored."

That is interesting. I am glad someone has discovered this. So perhaps the way to organise a protest, is to use secret messages coded in the form of vitriolic comments. Eg, "Mao Tsedong is an idiot" = Meet at Tiannamen Square.

Re:How to organise a protest (1)

Jumunquo (2988827) | about 3 months ago | (#47734133)

What's the secret message for "remember to bring the anti-tank explosives?"

Re:How to organise a protest (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47734215)

Try this:
"Netanyahu is a baby killer"=Meet at Washington Synagogue.

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