Tim Wimborne / Reuters

How to Spy on 600 Million People

The Hidden Vulnerabilities in Chinese Information Technology

Three years ago, Edward Snowden, a CIA employee, leaked documents revealing the U.S. government’s extensive surveillance of foreign and domestic phone calls. On the anniversary of that explosive disclosure, media outlets are no doubt preparing to revisit questions about data privacy and civil liberties.

What the world might be missing, however, is the way in which surveillance technologies have already extended beyond the interception of phone calls, e-mails, and text messages. In fact, it isn’t too far off to imagine governments being able to spy on your e-mails, Facebook posts, and tweets before you send them. Nor is it unrealistic that states and private firms could intercept and read .docx files, .rtf files, and indeed all text files produced using ostensibly non-transmitting programs.

Finally, it is possible that such surveillance could eventually be conducted in real time, where text documents could be intercepted even before one pressed “save” or committed a file to the cloud.

All of this is speculative, but that doesn’t make it unreal.

mullaney_howtospy_snowden.jpg Bobby Yip / Reuters

People carrying mobile phones walk past a banner supporting Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), at Hong Kong's financial Central district, June 18, 2013.

People carrying mobile phones walk past a banner supporting Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), at Hong Kong's financial Central district, June 18, 2013. People carrying mobile phones walk past a banner supporting Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), at Hong Kong's financial Central district, June 18, 2013.

EVERY KEY YOU STROKE For the past decade, I have been working on the history of modern Chinese information technology, with the results due to appear in a pair of books that MIT Press is publishing next year. I had no idea that in the course of my research I would stumble upon something relevant to present-day debates about state surveillance, data privacy, and the Snowden leak that shocked the world. But I did. In a nutshell: Chinese computing has a “keylogging” function effectively baked in. The technology came about for non-malicious (and rather brilliant) reasons, but it has made it theoretically possible to spy on Chinese computer users in real time—even in cases in which one is using seemingly offline and non-transmitting text programs such as Microsoft Word, NotePad, TextEdit, and more. And current trajectories in media technology strongly suggest that this vulnerability will soon spread beyond China, becoming, in effect, the new normal.

To see why, one needs

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