BEIJING – Don’t click on links sent by strangers, the police in one Chinese district warned last year, because malware known as Trojan horses use all sort of tricks to burrow into people’s phones and computers.
“Curiosity hurts,” the Public Security Bureau in the city of Wenzhou in southeastern China posted on its social media account.
Yet a few months after posting that warning, a lower level police department in Wenzhou was left red-faced when it emerged that officers had spent 149,000 yuan ($24,000) buying a device and software designed to plant Trojans into phones to monitor its own citizens.
The embarrassing revelation was spotted on the Web site of the Wenzhou Economic and Development Zone, on a list of purchased items last month. It showed 100,000 yuan spent on a coding machine used “to plant Trojan programs on jail-broken Android or iPhones”, and 49,000 yuan spent on malware targeting the same phones, “to monitor in real time information such as cell phone calls, text messages and photos.”
China’s government insists it staunchly opposes hacking and cyber-attacks, and has denied U.S. government accusations that it spies on foreign companies. State media here has also accused the United States of hypocrisy after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed details of the NSA's own cyber-surveillance program.
Reacting to the Wenzhou report, Chinese Web users pointed out Article 286 of the country’s criminal law that threatens up to five years in prison for anyone who “deliberately make and spread disruptive programs such as computer viruses.”
But the revelation did not come as a surprise to citizens here, who live in a culture where surveillance is central to the Party’s effort to “maintain security” – which often means measures to suppress dissent and prolong its rule.
Some sarcastically observed that the fact the information even came out was a step forward.
“The government buys Trojans, and then publicizes it! The government is improving,” one person posted on social media.
Netizens were quick to examine other lists of government purchases and purchase request documents to find embarrassing admissions. The government in Weihai, a city in the the eastern province of Shandong, put out a request document in December 2013 for VPN (virtual private network) software that would allow it to bypass the country’s own censorship apparatus, known as the Great Firewall of China.
The reason for needing to bypass the censors: because they blocked access to social Web sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google+, “which is very unhelpful for the Commerce Bureau’s job of soliciting business.”
The government in Taian, also in Shandong, put out a request for a system to identify trending topics online, analyze public opinion and to automatically counter it – in other words to automatically generate pro-government posts on social media to drown out criticism of the authorities.
China is already thought to pay tens of thousands of people to post pro-government comments on Web sites and social media; they are known as the Fifty Cent Party, after the amount of money (0.5 yuan or 8 U.S. cents) they are thought to receive for each post.
Wenzhou’s PSB has since taken down the offending list of purchases from its Web site.