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China 1 July 2004

"Bware, SMS unda ctrl"

Chinese government gets a new SMS messaging surveillance system

Chinese firm Venus info Tech Ltd said on 11 June 2004 that it had secured permission from the Public Security Ministry to market its real-time surveillance system for SMS (mobile phone text) messages. The new technology will allow the authorities to filter messages using key words and to pinpoint "reactionary" text-senders.

Reporters Without Borders condemns this new surveillance system. "The Chinese authorities are making ever greater use of new technology to control the circulation of news and information. In the past months we have been witnessing a real downturn in press freedom particularly on the Internet. The international community should react against this hardening by the Chinese regime", said the organisation.

Venus info Tech Ltd said in its press release that its surveillance system would allow it to home in on "false political rumours" and "reactionary remarks" among others. It works through filtering algorithms created by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, based on keywords and combinations of key words.

It generates automatic alerts to police and saves information about suspect texts - date of sending, sender of a message and so on ˆ for 60 days. It could also be used for surveillance of other types of electronic messages such as emails. The website, specialised in press freedom issues on the Internet, has raised the alarm about the new system, "if this product works as claimed, and if its price is as low as Chinese products usually tend to be, exports to other countries may soon followit", it said.

According to the same press release, China currently has 2,800 SMS surveillance centres. These specialised departments came under great pressure during the Sars crisis, in May 2003, to monitor messages sent about the epidemic. Around a dozen people were arrested as a result for having spread "false rumours" through their mobile phones.

On 2 June 2004, the deputy minister of Public Security, Zhang Xinfeng, announced the launch of a campaign against the criminal use of text messages. Crooks could make use of text messages to send bogus promotional offers and obtain its victims bank details. The minister at the time insisted on the necessity of deploying "specialised technology" to prevent this type of crime.

There has been a huge increase in the use of mobile phones in China in recent years. In some cities ˆ such as Guangzhou or Beijing ˆ the rate of mobile phone ownership has reached 60 %, a figure close to that in Western countries.

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