China's new cyber crackdown

The Great Firewall of China has been replaced by the Green Dam, a special program designed to prevent "immoral material" from being accessed on the web.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has issued a notice, made public June 8, requiring computer manufacturers to ensure that all computers sold in China as of July 1 are shipped with a software program called "Green Dam.” The software, designed by the Chinese company Jinhui Computer System Engineering (JCSE) in cooperation with the Chinese military and security agencies, is designed to prevent "immoral material” such as pornography and profane language from being accessed on the Internet.

China often uses such measures as cover for clamping down on political dissent by blocking access to websites that criticize the government or attempt to organize people into unsanctioned groups. While Green Dam is being advertised as a program that will censor immoral material, it could easily be used to censor other material perceived to be hostile to the Chinese state.

China is well known for its "Great Firewall” that prevents certain material from being accessed by computers with Chinese-based IP addresses. However, enterprising computer users have managed to get past the firewall by using proxy IP addresses from other countries. Green Dam goes a step further than the Great Firewall by placing the filter inside the individual computers instead of within the country’s entire network, which means that proxy IP addresses alone will no longer allow computer users to view banned sites.

The exact wording of the Ministry’s announcement does give computer makers and buyers an option when it comes to installing the software. PC makers are required to either pre-install the software on the computers they ship to China or, at a minimum, include a CD-ROM copy of the software in the shipment. So far the software is available only as a Windows-compatible version, so not everyone who buys a computer in China after July 1 will necessarily have Green Dam software. However, public Internet access points such as schools and Internet cafes will be required to have the software on their computers. Already, some 2.6 million computers and nearly 7,000 websites in China are using Green Dam.

JCSE certainly landed a plum deal with the Chinese government, which, in addition to requiring the software to be included in every new computer sold in China, reportedly spent $6.1 million subsidizing Green Dam’s development. But there are likely deeper reasons for the new policy than simply giving preferential treatment to JCSE. Encouraging every computer user in China to have a common piece of software will make it easier for Chinese cyberpolice to regulate access to the internet. Green Dam is designed to receive updates from JCSE including newly banned websites, words and phrases. This means that JCSE has the ability to upload information to computers using the software.

Even computer users who install the software but don’t turn it on or don’t pay for it after their free trial year will have latent software on their computers that is programmed to receive updates from JCSE. This essentially gives JCSE (and its government collaborators) a common portal into every computer that uses Green Dam. This access could be manipulated to send any number of commands to PCs around the country, from blocking certain Web sites to tracking individual activity.

The significance of the Green Dam requirement isn’t that the government is requiring PC makers to include anti-pornography software with each PC shipped to China. The more important fact is that China is encouraging its computer users to put a single, uniform piece of software on every computer they purchase. This is an unprecedented move when it comes to national cybersecurity, and regardless of the government’s intentions, the simple fact that more and more computers in China will share common software means that a gap or weakness in that software could be manipulated by a skilled hacker with very broad consequences.

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.

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