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China opens its ears to snooping in foreign tongues

Arabic, Japanese and regional dialects now discernible by Beijing's intelligence chaps

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China’s fearsome censorship and surveillance apparatus just got even more intimidating after the introduction of new technology to track communications in regional languages other than the Mandarin/Putonghua spoken in most of the country.

The unnamed system was developed by Tsinghua university’s Centre for Intelligent Image and Document Information Processing and is likely to be targeted at trouble makers in regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang.

The technology will allow local cyber snoopers to monitor conversations in every major ethnic minority language in China, as well as Arabic and Japanese, project leader Ding Xiaoqing told the South China Morning Post.

Current surveillance tools employed by Beijing’s vast security forces are apparently only able to deal with one language at a time and require the operator to speak that language.

The new system is also able to detect internet-based messages which can bypass current snooping technologies by encoding them into images.

"An increasing number of messages are passed around on the internet in image format to dodge the government's surveillance. Most of the equipment in use these days cannot deal with such information," Ding told the paper.

China is stepping up its monitoring of citizens in trouble-hit areas like Tibet and Xinjiang, especially following the deadly October 28 car bomb attack in Tiananmen Square which is suspected to have been carried out by Uyghur separatists.

Such attacks are extremely rare in the People’s Republic, in part because of the huge resources it devotes to monitoring its citizens and censoring what they can read and post online.

Its success in this field has even helped popularise such systems in North Korea, the Middle East and elsewhere, leading to some lucrative contracts for those technology suppliers prepared to ignore the morality of the whole thing.

In March a Reporters Without Borders report singled out as “enemies of the internet” French spyware firm Amesys, which is claimed to have sold to the Gadaffi regime; UK/German spyware maker Gamma International; and Italian firm Hacking Team, which provides “lawful interception” kit; among others.

Just this week El Reg came across Hong Kong-based biz Semptian, which appears to be marketing an off-the-shelf Great Firewall product. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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