Cases of big data sold for profit, manipulated to sway public opinion, cause concern

By Zhang Yiqian and Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/15 18:18:40

Accusations that fans of Chinese rapper PG One used paid services to manipulate Sina Weibo search results has triggered discussions about the government's control of data.

China's strengthening of cyber sovereignty regulations, including an iCloud data handover to a government-backed company, has led to privacy concerns among the public.

The 2017 China International Big Data Expo Opens in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, attracting related businesses and talents. Photo: VCG

Chinese rap singer PG One was recently criticized by Ziguangge (a Party magazine), the Communist Youth League, People's Daily and several other mainstream media for his obscene lyrics encouraging young people to take drugs and discriminate against women.

PG One's fans fought back against the criticism, but only served to pour more fuel on the fire. Snapshots that went viral recently show some PG One fans, mistakenly thinking that Ziguangge magazine is a restaurant, maliciously attacking the "restaurant" for using gutter oil.

The hashtag "Ziguangge gutter oil" quickly became a trending topic online. As reported in the media, it is believed that PG One's fans had manipulated social media by buying services on Taobao to bump the hashtag up to the "hot topics list" on Sina Weibo.

Sina Weibo later responded that "Ziguangge gutter oil" did not actually enter the hot topic list, but only a real-time search list. True or not, the Ziguangge farce serves as a reminder of just how easy it is these days to influence public opinion in the internet era.

This, combined with other recent incidents in which people's personal data was leaked by Chinese companies, also led to discussions about whether there needs to be more government regulations of big data.

Ye Zhenzhen, president of People's Daily Online, said at the Fifth China Audio and Video Convention last December that data has become an important administration resource, just as the gun and the pen once were, and that it is an exorable trend for the Party to transition from regulating media to regulating data. However, privacy concerns are also being stirred up among the general public. 


Kidnapping public opinion

In recent years, using entertainment capital to kidnap public opinion and twist facts has become a severe social phenomenon that ought not to be neglected.

If a celebrity is criticized, for instance, his or her fans can now pay certain services to spread rumors on "most searched lists," hijacking cyber space as their personal battlefield. This sort of paid-for cyber-bullying has resulted in a corrosion of the interwebs and social media.

As reported, real-time most-searched lists on Sina Weibo are easily manipulated. To enter the top 3, one must pay a service that specializes in social media manipulation between 50,000 ($7,762) and 60,000 yuan; entering the top 10 costs between 40,000 and 50,000 yuan. Such services can be bought on Taobao or directly through Sina Weibo.

Wang Sixin, a media law professor at Communication University of China, told the Global Times that PG One's case reflects that an invisible hand is now manipulating public events and public opinion, which is dangerous.

"Manipulated data can easily mislead the public ... The government's administration of various affairs is based on data. If the data is problematic, then the root of the administration is problematic, which will severely affect the government and social management," he said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed the importance of China's cyber sovereignty on several occasions. At an internet conference held in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province, last year, Xi said in his letter that the development of the internet has posed many new challenges for the sovereignty, security and development interests of the world's countries, Xinhua reported.

In June of 2017, China's Cyber Security Law was implemented to regulate the country's internet and safeguard State security.

A recent event also demonstrates the strength of regulations already in place. Last week, Apple announced on its official website that the Guizhou-Cloud Big Data Industry Co (GCBD), located in Guiyang, Southwest China's Guizhou Province, will become the new operator of its iCloud service in the Chinese mainland.

Some customers noticed that, in the new user's contract with GCBD, there's an added clause stating "with your understanding and agreement, Apple and GCBD are now authorized to visit all of your data stored in this service, including the right to share, exchange and reveal all user data according to law."

Over the last year, various cellphone apps, including Skype and some VPNs, were removed from Apple's local App Store.

Rising privacy concerns

In the face of these new regulations, there have been questions over whether they invade privacy. On China's Quora-like question-and-answer site Zhihu, someone anxiously asked what effects this will have on Chinese users and whether users' information will be leaked.

This coincides with questions arising from all walks of Chinese society concerning privacy in the age of big data, as there seems to be more awareness of this issue in recent years.

Last month, Chinese Internet company Qihoo 360 Technology Co announced it would shut down its online live broadcasting service following a widely circulated accusation over infringement of public privacy by its smart cameras, which automatically uploaded users' footage online.

Last week, Alibaba's third-party payment platform Alipay released annual bills for its users. But before users checked their e-bills, the box next to a line of words that read "I agree to the Sesame service agreement" in extremely small font was automatically ticked for everyone.

After users (unknowingly) approved the Sesame service agreement, it allowed the system to provide users' credit information to other third parties. Also, not unticking the agreement acted as a sort of unwitting authorization for the platform to analyze the user's information and share it with its cooperation institutions, according to the Sesame service agreement. This led to angry netizen protests, which resulted in Sesame Credit apologizing.

International concerns

There have also been international concerns about China's tightening data regulation and whether Chinese companies or the Chinese government are invading people's privacy.

In 2016, Amnesty International ranked 11 technology companies by whether or not they use encryption to protect users' online security. Assessment criteria included if the company deploys end-to-end encryption as a default and discloses government requests for user data. Tencent's QQ and WeChat scored "0" on the test.

Publicly, Tencent has insisted that its services follow relevant laws and protects users' privacy without revealing any details. But concerned netizens also pointed out news reports where people were detained by police for sending foul language insults about police or terrorism threats in seemingly private WeChat groups, proving that the company cooperates with authorities.

Last week, a deal between Chinese telecom giant Huawei and US telecom carrier AT&T fell through at the last minute. There was conjecture over safety and security issues, most notably, Huawei was accused of having ties with the Chinese government and Chinese military.

Regulation, not control

While some may worry about their privacy if China further strengthens data and cyber space regulations, Wang noted that the country has been making increasing efforts to protect personal privacy.

In response to privacy concerns, GCBD told the Global Times last Thursday that it will obey the rules and regulations of the country and safeguard the security of users' data.

"We've fully communicated with Apple about this cooperation. While Apple provides technical support, GCBD is responsible for management," GCBD said in a note sent to the Global Times. "The two sides will strictly follow the rules and regulations and protect users' privacy and data security."

On the other hand, because of leaks and other incidents, data regulation is now more important than ever. In February of last year, a reporter from China Central Television went undercover to reveal a black market chain where personal information can easily be bought. This reporter found out that, even with a simple cellphone number, one can buy information about anyone, including their ID number, phone call records and their current job.

Ye Zhenzhen stressed that government regulating data does not equal government control, as regulations are for the better development and service of all people's welfare.

"It is nothing abnormal if someone has improper expressions online and then gets supervised," said Wang. "It is a part of life (in China) to get used to, just like you need to adhere to traffic regulations to avoid being hit by vehicles."

Newspaper headline: Digital woes

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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