Exposed Chinese database shows depth of surveillance state
By YANAN WANG and DAKE KANG
Tuesday, February 19
BEIJING (AP) — The Chinese database Victor Gevers found online was not just a collection of old personal details.
It was a compilation of real-time data on more than 2.5 million people in western China, updated constantly with GPS coordinates of their precise whereabouts. Alongside their names, birth dates and places of employment, there were notes on the places that they had most recently visited — mosque, hotel, restaurant.
The discovery by Gevers, a Dutch cybersecurity researcher who revealed it on Twitter last week, has given a rare glimpse into China’s extensive surveillance of Xinjiang, a remote region home to an ethnic minority population that is largely Muslim. The area has been blanketed with police checkpoints and security cameras that apparently are doing more than just recording what happens.
The database Gevers found appears to have been recording people’s movements tracked by facial recognition technology, he said, logging more than 6.7 million coordinates in a span of 24 hours.
It illustrates how far China has taken facial recognition — in ways that would raise alarm about privacy concerns in many other countries — and serves as a reminder of how easily technology companies can leave supposedly private records exposed to global snoopers.
Gevers found that SenseNets, a Chinese facial recognition company, had left the database unprotected for months, exposing people’s addresses, government ID numbers and more. After Gevers informed SenseNets of the leak, he said, the database became inaccessible.
“This system was open to the entire world, and anyone had full access to the data,” said Gevers, noting that a system designed to maintain control over individuals could have been “corrupted by a 12-year-old.”
He said it included the coordinates of places where the individuals had recently been spotted by “trackers” — likely to be surveillance cameras. The stream indicated that the data is constantly being updated with information on people’s whereabouts, he said in an interview over a messaging app.
Gevers posted a graph online showing that 54.9 percent of the individuals in the database were identified as Han Chinese, the country’s ethnic majority, while 28.3 percent were Uighur and 8.3 percent were Kazakh, both Muslim ethnic minority groups.
A person who answered the phone at SenseNets declined a request for comment. The Xinjiang regional government did not respond to faxed questions.
Xinjiang, which borders central Asia in China’s far west, has been subject to severe security measures in recent years as part of what the government says has been a successful program to quash extremist and separatist movements.
The U.S. and other countries have condemned the crackdown, in which an estimated 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in internment camps that the government says are vocational training centers designed to rid the region of latent extremism.
Gulzia, an ethnic Kazakh woman who didn’t want her last name used out of fear of retribution, said that cameras were being installed everywhere, even in cemeteries, in late 2017. Now living across the border in Kazakhstan, she told The Associated Press by phone on Monday that she had been confined to house arrest in China and taken to a police station, where they photographed her face and eyes and collected samples of her voice and fingerprints.
“This can be used instead of your ID card to identify you in the future,” she said they told her. “Even if you get into an accident abroad, we’ll recognize you.”
The security clampdown is far heavier in Xinjiang than in most parts of China, though outside analysts and human rights activists have expressed concern that Xinjiang may be a testing ground for techniques that may be creeping into other parts of the country.
Joseph Atick, a pioneer in facial recognition technology, said that facial recognition products can use algorithms to recognize and track people in a crowd, but that privacy regulations in Europe, for example, make it much harder to launch a wide-scale application such as that of SenseNet.
“The technology around the world is becoming uniform and it is just the political climate that is different and leads to different applications,” he said.
According to a company registry, SenseNets was founded in the southern China city of Shenzhen in 2015 and is majority-owned by Beijing-based NetPosa, a technology company specializing in video surveillance. SenseNets’ website showcases partnerships with police forces in Jiangsu and Sichuan provinces and the city of Shanghai.
A promotional video boasts about SenseNets’ capacity to use facial and body recognition to track individuals’ precise movements and identify them even in a crowded or chaotic setting. Another video on its website shows surveillance cameras zeroing in on the path of a runaway prisoner who ends up in an ailing relative’s hospital room.
NetPosa’s website says it has offices in Boston and Santa Clara, California. The website of NetPosa’s U.S. subsidiary touts its products’ use in urban anti-terrorism.
In recent years, NetPosa has been buying stakes in American surveillance startups such as Knightscope, a security robot maker. In 2017, NetPosa tried to buy the now-bankrupt California surveillance camera maker Arecont, but later backed out, court records show.
In 2010 U.S. chip maker Intel announced a strategic partnership with NetPosa and an Intel subsidiary bought a stake in the company, but NetPosa said in 2015 that Intel had notified the Chinese company of its intent to divest its 4.4 percent stake by 2016.
Gevers said his discovery of the database presented an ethical dilemma. He is the co-founder of GDI Foundation, a Netherlands-based nonprofit that finds and informs entities of online security issues. He has become well-known in recent years for helping to uncover similarly exposed information on databases built with the open source MongoDB database program and left unsecured by their administrators.
GDI generally reports such discoveries to the entity that holds the information. Part of its mission is to remain neutral and not engage in political controversies.
Hours after he revealed his findings on Twitter, Gevers said, he learned that the system might be used to surveil Xinjiang’s Muslim minority groups.
He said that made him “very angry.”
“I could have destroyed that database with one command,” he said. “But I choose not to play judge and executioner because it is not my place to do so.”
US-China trade talks: Will the Chinese keep promises to stop bad behavior?
February 19, 2019
Amitrajeet A. Batabyal is a Friend of The Conversation.
Arthur J. Gosnell Professor of Economics, Rochester Institute of Technology
Disclosure statement: Amitrajeet A. Batabyal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: Rochester Institute of Technology provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Talks between the U.S. and China to end the trade war appear to be in trouble with the March 2 deadline for a deal fast approaching.
In the ongoing trade talks between the U.S. and China, a lack of trust – key to any successful negotiation – appears to be hobbling the ability to reach a deal. Hence it is not clear negotiators will be able to achieve anything substantive before they hit President Donald Trump’s deadline, triggering automatic tariff hikes if there’s no agreement.
As a trade economist, I believe the answer to the trust conundrum lies in learning from an international body the president disdains: the World Trade Organization.
From the American perspective, a key issue is that in the past the Chinese have made all sorts of promises to address U.S. concerns that they later reneged on. Or, China has taken so long to act that when it finally did it made little difference.
Several examples of Chinese promises going unkempt readily come to mind.
When China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, it was given “developing country” status. This allowed China to levy high tariffs on imports from the U.S. and Europe even as it benefited from low duties on its exports.
The understanding at that time was that as its economy grew, China would gradually adopt market-based economic principles and commit itself to the basic tenets of liberalized trade and globalization. But this has not happened.
Sometime after China joined the WTO, the country imposed a 21 percent to 30 percent tariff on cars. It was only this past December, and under pressure because of the current trade talks, that the Chinese finally agreed to temporarily reduce the tariff to 15 percent. In contrast, the corresponding U.S. tariff on Chinese auto imports has long been 2.5 percent.
More generally, also after becoming a WTO member, China promised to open up its banking, telecommunications and electronic payment processing sectors. But action in these areas has either been non-existent or halfhearted.
Even now, the Chinese telecommunications industry remains very much under government control, and the government has effectively precluded Facebook and Google from offering their services in China.
Concerns about the reliability of the Chinese are not limited to economic and technological matters. To see this, note that on a state visit to the U.S. in 2015, President Xi Jinping promised not to militarize the artificial islands on disputed reefs that the Chinese were building in the South China Sea.
However, we now have clear evidence that he has done exactly what he promised he would not do.
Holding China’s feet to the fire
Given all this, I believe it would be rather naïve on the part of the U.S. to agree to any Chinese promises in the current trade talks without also building a robust enforcement mechanism into any deal.
Indeed, the negotiators themselves seem to understand this, but difficulty finding a way to enforce any agreements – both past and present – is making it harder to come to a deal. And that’s where the WTO and its enforcement mechanisms come in.
For example, China agreed to just such a mechanism with its WTO ascension. This enforcement rule permitted a nation to automatically levy tariffs on certain Chinese goods and services if that country’s domestic market was hurt by those same exports. Unfortunately, like most WTO rules, this rule had a finite life and was allowed to lapse at the end in 2013. Even though this mechanism has been infrequently used, President Barack Obama took advantage of it with some success in 2009 to impose tariffs on Chinese-made tires that were harming U.S. manufacturers.
If such an enforcement mechanism can be built into a trade deal, then the U.S. would not have to plead its case before some international body before it retaliated against the Chinese. Instead, when confronted with one or more broken promises, it would have the legal right to act unilaterally to hold China accountable.
That said, since the current negotiations are between two sovereign nations, the key is to devise an enforcement mechanism that is agreeable to both the U.S. and China. Only then will a resulting trade deal be self-enforcing.
Since the U.S. and China are both members of the WTO, another but less potent enforcement mechanism would lie in utilizing its dispute settlement mechanism to address any disagreements that may arise after a deal is reached. The U.S. has had success in the past in using this WTO mechanism as well to hold China accountable.
A deal worth the paper it’s printed on
The venerable Chinese sage Sun Tzu once said that “in the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”
The U.S. now has an opportunity to conclude a meaningful trade deal with China that also has enforcement built into it. Therefore, the American negotiators ought to seize this opportunity and ensure a deal isn’t backed primarily by Chinese promises.
Otherwise, it won’t be the last time a U.S. president fumes about unfair Chinese trading practices.
Why a centuries-old religious dispute over Ukraine’s Orthodox Church matters today
February 19, 2019
Author: Victoria Smolkin, Associate Professor of History, Wesleyan University
Disclosure statement: Victoria Smolkin has received funding from the Woodrow Wilson Center Kennan Institute, the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University, the Social Science Research Council, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the Fulbright-Hays.
Partners: Wesleyan University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
A new Orthodox Church was recently established in Ukraine.
Shortly after, Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the spiritual head of global Orthodox Christianity, granted independence to the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine and transferred its jurisdiction from the church of Moscow to the church of Constantinople, located in Istanbul.
This competition between the churches of Constantinople and Moscow for dominance in the Orthodox Christian world is not new – it goes back more than 500 years. But the birth of the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine opens a new chapter in this history.
So what is Ukraine’s new church, and how will it change the global political and religious landscape?
Constantinople vs. Moscow
The Patriarchate of Constantinople is considered the most important of the world’s 15 independent Eastern Orthodox churches. Although Eastern Christianity is less hierarchical than its Western Catholic counterpart, the Patriarch of Constantinople nevertheless has great authority over the Orthodox world.
This authority stems from Constantinople’s claim to primacy, which is rooted in its early history.
In the fourth century A.D., Emperor Constantine made two decisions that changed the world: he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, and he moved the capital of the Roman empire from Rome to the then-modest city of Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople after the emperor.
With the fall of Rome in the fifth century A.D., Constantinople became the uncontested center of the Roman empire, making Byzantium the center of Christian power.
In the centuries that followed, the Patriarch of Constantinople challenged the universal authority of the Pope in Rome on both theological and political grounds. In 1054, this contest between Patriarch and Pope culminated in the “Great Schism,” which split the Christian world into the Catholic “West” and Orthodox “East” – a division that has shaped politics and religion to this day.
Constantinople retained its position as the imperial center of Christianity for a millennium, until the city fell to the Ottomans in 1453 A.D. Importantly, even after the fall of the Byzantine empire as a political order and the change of the city’s name from Constantinople to Istanbul, the church retained its original name. It is the last remnant of Byzantium in the modern world.
With Constantinople’s fall, Orthodox Christianity became a minority faith under Islamic rule. Moscow’s Orthodox Church became the most powerful Eastern Christian church on sovereign territory. This allowed it to position itself as the heir of the Christian empire.
From Kiev to Moscow
Moscow was not a new church. Its origins dated to 988 A.D., when Christianity was adopted as the religion of Kievan Rus’ – the medieval state that encompassed much of what is now Ukraine, Belarus, and the European parts of Russia.
Kiev was the first political center of the Rus’ state, and the church of Kievan Rus’ was subservient to Constantinople. In the late 1230s, when Kiev was besieged by the Mongols, Constantinople authorized the transfer of the church north. In the 13th century, the church moved to Moscow, which had become the regional center of political power.
Until the 16th century, Moscow remained under the religious authority of Constantinople for 300 years. But once Moscow felt powerful enough to assert its authority over Constantinople, it leveraged its position as the largest and wealthiest Orthodox church to establish its own patriarchate, the highest religious body within Orthodox Christianity.
Moscow vs. Kiev
Ukrainian Orthodoxy was under the jurisdiction of the Russian church for over 300 years, until 2019.
The reasons for this were pragmatic.
Ukraine’s position as a borderland between Western and Eastern Christianity placed Ukrainian Christians between the authority of Moscow, Rome, and Constantinople.
After Kiev’s fall to the Mongols in the 13th century, Ukraine was caught between two powerful neighbors with opposing religious identities: to the East, Orthodox Russia, and to the West, Catholic Poland-Lithuania.
In the 1600s, Ukraine found itself under pressure from Catholic neighbors intent on converting Orthodox Ukrainians to Catholicism. For Constantinople, this made the value of protection from a powerful Orthodox neighbor apparent, and it turned to Moscow for help. In 1686, Constantinople placed Ukrainian Orthodoxy under Moscow’s authority.
The Orthodox Church of Ukraine
Since Constantinople had authorized Moscow’s original claim to Ukraine in 1686, today’s Ukraine needed Constantinople to break the ties that bound Ukrainian Orthodoxy to Moscow.
But why does Ukraine want to break these ties now?
Throughout Ukraine’s ongoing war with Russia since 2014, the Ukrainian state has grown more vocal in its support for an independent Ukrainian church. Ukraine’s leaders cast Ukrainian Orthodoxy’s break from Moscow as the final step of Ukraine’s journey to political independence.
Until 2019, Ukraine – a country of almost 45 million people, around 30 million of whom identify as Orthodox Christians – had three separate Orthodox Churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
All three vied for the position of national church of Ukraine on different grounds.
Although the three churches had no doctrinal differences, only the church under the Moscow Patriarchate was recognized as legitimate in the greater Orthodox world. The other two churches were independent, but considered illegitimate, or “schismatic,” by both Constantinople and Moscow.
Even with state patronage then, Ukrainian Orthodoxy needed religious support if it was to get an independent church that was also theologically legitimate.
The church of Constantinople provided the solution to this problem.
Given this complex religious landscape, Constantinople did two things to establish a new Ukrainian church independent of Moscow. First, on Oct. 11, 2018, it revoked the 1686 decision to grant Moscow jurisdiction over Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Then, on Dec. 15, Constantinople recognized Ukraine’s two “schismatic” churches as legitimate after which they united and held a council to adopt a common charted and elect a leader.
Finally, on Jan. 5, at a ceremony in Istanbul, the Patriarch of Constantinople gave the new Metropolitan of Kiev and all Ukraine, Epiphanius I, the tomos of autocephaly – a church document proclaiming the church’s independence from Moscow.
Alongside Ukraine’s religious leaders, the ceremony was also attended by Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko.
Why old religious disputes matter
My work on the history of religion and politics shows that old religious disputes continue to shape modern politics.
For Ukraine, the realignment of Ukrainian Orthodoxy from Moscow to Constantinople takes Ukraine out of the “Russian World,” an ideology that Russia uses to make claims beyond its political borders.
The Russian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, has broken ties with Constantinople, and does not recognize the legitimacy of Ukraine’s new Orthodox Church. It continues to claim jurisdiction over Orthodoxy in Ukraine.
Orthodox churches beyond Ukraine are now forced to choose between Moscow and Constantinople. The conflict over Ukraine has moved to the global stage.