Facebook, X, and YouTube are blocked in China, but they can be accessed thanks to a VPN

Beijing going after Chinese users who follow dissidents abroad on social media

Chinese influencers are asking followers to be careful after the leaked information from a hacking firm with ties to Chinese authorities was released. Teacher Li, who documented the anti-lockdown protests on Twitter, saw the number of their followers drop from 1.6 million to 1.4 million. The data leak also shows the breadth of China’s cyber activities, including against foreign governments.

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John Ai

(ZENIT News – Asia News / Beijing, 02.29.2024).- Chinese dissidents living abroad with a large social media presence are losing followers as a result of a massive leak from a security company with close ties to Chinese authorities.

The leak says that China’s law enforcement agencies are tracking down and identifying users who follow exiles on social media, in anticipation of the National People’s Congress, which is held every year in early March.

Li Ying, a Chinese artist living in Italy known as Teacher Li on X (Twitter), posted a warning, saying that the police are going after his followers, telling them to unfollow him to avoid troubles.

Li Ying gained some notoriety in late 2022, when he began disseminating information about the anti-lockdown protests taking place in China.

He continues to post news about events and demonstrations across the country but after his warning was posted, his followers dropped from 1.6 million to 1.4 million. He also reported that some of his followers were summoned by the police and released shortly after.

Li also suggested to his followers to avoid using Huawei devices and to choose on international platforms different usernames or profile pictures than those used on Chinese social media.

Facebook, X, and YouTube are blocked in China, but they can be accessed thanks to a VPN, a technology used to bypass China’s firewall and reach foreign internet services.

It is hard to estimate how many people in China have downloaded a VPN, but it is certain that Chinese authorities have targeted individuals and businesses that use it, especially before the start of the congress session, which leads to an increase in Internet censorship every year.

Concerns in this regard emerged after the release of a series of documents from a cyber security (but it would be better to call it hacking) company named I-Soon, based in Shanghai with branches in Beijing and in the provinces of Sichuan, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang.

On its website, which was shut down after the information leak, the company said it had close ties to the Chinese government’s security departments and military services.

Hundreds of pages of contracts, employees’ salaries, and internal chat history were allegedly leaked by a disgruntled company employee.

The documents — analysed by cybersecurity experts around the world — reveal that hackers, hired by the Chinese government, have been tasked with targeting foreign governments, research institutes, telecommunications service providers, dissidents, Uyghurs abroad, and even competitors in the cyber security industry.

I-Soon penetrated government agencies in several countries, including India, Thailand, Vietnam, and South Korea, to name a few. The pay, for breaking into the computer systems of a government ministry in Vietnam, is US$ 55,000, according to the leaked data.

I-Soon reportedly also possesses the necessary technology to access Outlook email accounts and obtain contact lists, see the geolocation data of iPhones, and retrieve the email address and phone number of X users, which is useful for Chinese police to track down and identify people.

But that is not all. Among the services offered there is also the possibility of taking control of an individual’s computer remotely.

In recent years, several people have been forced to remove posts criticising the authorities. Outsourcing cyber security to hackers is, in fact, proving to be more effective than state espionage, especially when it comes to commercial targets.

“The leak provides some of the most concrete details seen publicly to date, revealing the maturing nature of China’s cyber espionage ecosystem,” SentinelLabs analysts said.

Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied that the government has ties with I-Soon and its hacking activities; nevertheless, an investigation has been launched into the leak.

On Monday, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology released an official document calling for the establishing a system for data protection.

The latter said that protection should concentrate on companies that deal with key technologies that can affect the security of supply chains and national security.

(Angeline Tan contributed to this article)

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