How money-hungry data brokers erode privacy in China

A recent expose by Southern Metropolis Daily, a Chinese daily newspaper known for its investigative reporting, has revealed that random people with enough money at their disposal can easily discover potentially compromising information about practically anyone in China.

erode privacy china

David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, has helpfully summarized the report for those of us that don’t read Chinese.

As it turns out, you only need some $100-$200 dollars and the person’s national ID number, and tracking services advertised online can get you information on their hotel stays, Internet cafe visits, flights and train journeys taken, border crossings, real estate holdings, bank deposit records, driving records and, if possible, even their current location (you get a map and GPS coordinates).

“Owing perhaps to censorship guidelines, the Southern Metropolis Daily report did not draw out the broader implications of its findings – that either government and police insiders are routinely selling access to a treasure trove of personal information, or that national databases are vulnerable to outside hacking,” Bandurski noted.

He also pointed out that “as data becomes ever more precious, securing this resource could become virtually impossible – particularly in a system like China’s, which lacks adequate legal and political protections.”

Those of us that live in nominally orderly democracies might be thinking that this privacy dystopia can never happen in our countries, but there have been many known instances of people who have access to certain restricted information offering the same to those who are willing to pay.

Some get caught and some don’t, but what happens to those that do (jail time, suspensions, etc.) is obviously not a good enough deterrent. The fact is, nothing is a good deterrent when people are desperate for money.

More and more, the often repeated “privacy is dead” claim rings true, and there’s little we can do about it when our governments and businesses require and keep more and more information from us. This data is then ostensibly kept secure, but in reality every system can be hacked, every database plundered given enough time and a good enough incentive.

Those who point out this fact are often painted as paranoid and their protests are met with the usual “we have adequate checks and balances/security to prevent that from happening” spiel.

Unfortunately, these warnings have been ignored and these fears dismissed for so long that there’s no going back: the information is out there, in too many places to ever be deleted completely – and now anyone with enough money can get to it.