New Zealand journalist Sam Gaskin, who is based in China, looks at how journalists can stay cybersafe while reporting in techno-authoritarian states.
Many Asian countries aren't especially protective of press freedoms. In China, where I’ve lived since 2007, it’s becoming increasingly difficult not only for audiences to receive information from foreign media, but also for reporters to get it to global audiences. While the internet has enabled a freer flow of communication, China has built the world’s most sophisticated technological infrastructure to monitor and throttle it.
Kiwi journalist Jamil Anderlini is the Asia Editor of The Financial Times. Having reported from countries in the region including China, Pakistan and North Korea, he says: “My strong feeling is no matter how hard you try to evade [state security’s] watchful eyes, you’ll never be better than them, especially in China, where surveillance is total.”
Some of the richest countries in the region are little better. “Singapore is one of the worst,” he says. “It’s so invasive.”
A senior journalist based in Hong Kong who preferred not to go on the record agrees. “The first principle is to assume everything you have is hacked.”
What follows is a guide to digital security for reporters in Asia with tips for acquiring information and keeping it secure while protecting yourself and your sources. How important the security measures outlined in this article will be to you depends on what you’re reporting — unless it’s sensitive, you may well be left to your own devices.
The Great Firewall
The most omnipresent impediment to reporting in China today is the Great Firewall, which blocks access not just to news sites and social media but also basic tools such as Google and Gmail. I wrote about the Great Firewall in more depth for the Asia Media Centre here, and you can check what’s currently blocked in China at Greatfire.org.
Foreigners and many Chinese nationals use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to access blocked sites. These are much easier to procure outside China than inside, where websites and app stores that offer them are typically blocked. Reporters should download multiple VPNs for both your phone and laptop before arriving in China.
The reliability of VPNs very much depends on the politics of the moment. In the lead up to China’s 70th anniversary on October 1, many people here, myself included, have found their VPNs struggle to connect, are slower than usual, and disconnect more frequently.
Anecdotally, Astrill remains the most consistent VPN. Free VPNs such as Hexatech and Betternet are viable short term options, but it’s worth remembering that the VPN providers themselves may be able to intercept your data, so it’s best to use something reputable.
Crucially, Anderlini says it’s a misconception that VPNs can protect your information from state spies. “The only VPN companies that can operate in China are the ones that share everything with the state. These VPN companies share everything with the Ministry of State Security.”
His advice is to treat all digital communications in China “as if they’re happening in front of state security” because, for all intents and purposes, “they are”.
He says the best policy is to assume you're under surveillance and proceed accordingly.
In their guidelines for Reporting and Travelling Safely in China, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (the FCCC), gives a sense of just how Orwellian China’s information monitoring apparatus can be.
The FCCC recommends using public phones to avoid eavesdroppers, changing SIM cards after contacting a “sensitive” person, and even removing your phone’s battery, if possible, to avoid being tracked or listened to.
Anderlini says a smartphone is “a homing beacon for the state” and the best way to ensure you’re not compromised is to leave it behind, instead taking notes with a pen and paper. He also recommends using burner phones and laptops for short term press trips to China.
When recording audio and shooting pictures or video, the FCCC suggests using discreet cameras and microphones that won’t draw attention in public. They suggest concealing storage devices to prevent data being confiscated and changing the devices you use regularly to keep data from being erased.
I was once marched off a bus in Xinjiang by police and made to delete video of an arrest being made, though the video remained in my “recently deleted” folder. Such incidents are not uncommon in authoritarian countries.
Anderlini’s strategies include uploading digital media as soon as it’s acquired so it won’t be lost and hiding memory cards on his person. “In China they don’t normally strip search you,” he says.
Recently, the FCCC spoke out against a spike in detentions, searches and confiscations of materials from journalists travelling between Hong Kong, where protests have persisted since May, and mainland China.
Messaging apps Signal, Telegram and WhatsApp all offer end-to-end encryption, but Signal is the one security experts and journalists recommend. That’s because its chats and metadata are fully encrypted by default.
Telegram is used by protestors in Hong Kong because it has a group messaging function, allowing information to be spread more quickly. In recent weeks, Telegram has been hit by DDoS attacks originating mainly from mainland China, according to the app’s CEO.
Even more secure is Bluetooth messaging app Bridgefy, whose messages spread from one device to another directly, without ever touching the World Wide Web. That’s another tool Hong Kong protestors are using, but it too can be compromised by state agents able to infiltrate the network by posing as protestors.
Another complication is that with Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Viber and even Snapchat blocked in China, Chinese nationals tend to use domestic app WeChat as their primary means of communication. That makes it an essential tool for contacting sources, despite it being monitored in accordance with China's broad cyber security laws and the fact that it censors group chats in real time.
Journalists also need to protect their sources, and in China that means not conducting conversations that could compromise someone else’s safety over digital channels — and definitely not over WeChat.
Because devices can be hacked and software can be cracked, pre-internet era techniques, such as limiting the dissemination of information on a need-to-know basis, have become even more important.
“The only [really secure] way is to have face to face conversations in a crowded place while moving where there’s lots of ambient noise,” Anderlini says.
Press freedoms are unlikely to improve in China in the short term with the FCCC noting that their 2018 member survey “painted the darkest picture of reporting conditions in China in recent memory.”
Ultimately, Anderlini says the best strategy is often not to try to bamboozle or outwit state security.
“The more steps you take to evade surveillance, the more suspicious they’ll be of you, and the more harassed you’ll be."
Main image: Chinese artist aaajiao’s 404 (2017) is comprised of two ink-sponge rollers audiences can use to paint the walls with the Internet connection error code ‘404'. Photo by Sam Gaskin.
- Asia Media Centre