Commentary: China banning Facebook and Google now looks smart considering recent data breaches

Commentary: China banning Facebook and Google now looks smart considering recent data breaches

The Chinese government appears to have shown the right foresight, starting about 10 years ago, in blocking access to Facebook and Google in the country, says a commentator.

Chinese President Xi Jinping disembarks from a plane upon his arrival to attend the upcoming Easter
Chinese President Xi Jinping looks on during a welcoming ceremony upon his arrival to attend the Eastern Economic Forum, at Vladivostok International Airport outside Vladivostok, Russia September 11, 2018. Vladimir Smirnov/TASS Host Photo Agency/Pool via REUTERS

BEIJING: Media reports over the past year have highlighted horrific accounts of data breaches of confidential information, which were captured from Facebook accounts.

Accordingly, some have said the Chinese government appears to have shown the right foresight, starting about 10 years ago, to block its citizens from logging on to Facebook and Google in the country.

SITTING TARGETS

Facebook’s recent data breach that involved about 50 million accounts was a case of spammers stealing information to sell to companies that compose and analyse gleaned data that are then sold to other companies for marketing and advertising purposes.

Although this loss of personal information is not the first and should not surprise Facebook users, it serves as a sharp reminder that if hackers or a country’s enemies want to uncover intimate details about our personal lives, they can do so very easily.

READ: Facebook hack reveals the perils of using single sign-on login, a commentary

With new advancements in science and technologies, criminals are seeking new ways to exploit these for selfish gains.

In the smartphone era, hackers can cause greater mischief and mayhem than ever before, especially with the rising popularity of cloud services, in which firms store and protect huge amounts of personal data coming from mobile and internet users.

Cloud services companies have become sitting targets for hackers. Before the onset of the cloud, hackers could only focus on one computer or mobile device at a time.

It was easier for them to hack such devices, but more difficult for them to gather the huge mass of personal information, since it was so time-consuming.

A visitor uses his mobile phone as he walks past the Microsoft booth with a logo for cloud computin
A visitor uses his mobile phone as he walks past the Microsoft booth with a logo for cloud computing software application at the CeBit computer fair in Hanover, March, 6, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

But with cloud services, hackers could target such companies to try to enter a vulnerable back door and gather a treasure trove of personal information stored from millions of mobile devices.

Hackers understood that stealing Big Data from Facebook and Google would lead to a road of riches for them.

READ: Facebook’s fake news crisis is a product of Silicon Valley culture, a commentary

YET MORE USING GOOGLE AND FACEBOOK

As of mid-2018, Facebook has reported over 2.23 billion active monthly users, according to Statista, while the figures are even higher for people who use Google to search for information daily.

Facebook and Google generate much of their respective revenues by recording the history of those who use their sites and keeping track of their traceable “digital footprint”.

With large troves of data, they can break these down with algorithms and develop useful reports filled with statistics and trends that can be sold to corporations and even governments worldwide.

THE CHINESE APPROACH DOESN’T SEEM SO UNATTRACTIVE AFTER ALL

Accordingly, Beijing believed it was in the nation’s best interests to promote Chinese companies to do the same as Facebook and Google, while blocking the Silicon Valley tech giants.

Baidu is widely seen as China’s version of Google and Tencent’s WeChat, with more than 1 billion users, can be considered China’s Facebook equivalent.

Illustration of Chinese instant messaging app Bullet Messenger next to Tencent's Wechat app
Chinese instant messaging app Bullet Messenger is seen next to Tencent's Wechat app on a mobile phone in this illustration picture taken September 4, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration)

Although there had been numerous public revelations of data breaches suffered by US-based tech firms, Chinese tech giants, called, BAT (Baidu, Alibaba Group and Tencent) have appeared to be much more effective at protecting the personal information of their inter-connected mobile and internet users.

Are Chinese tech companies better at fending off hackers?

It is worth bearing in mind that when Barack Obama was President, he had close ties with Facebook and Google.

It was during then that news outlets had broken a story in June 2013, disclosing disturbing details about a US government-backed programme, known as PRISM, which allowed the US National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation to directly harvest data from emails, audio on phone calls, texts, and instant messaging all from internal servers of nine major technology companies – though these companies have since categorically refuted these claims.

When Beijing heard details about this groundbreaking story, it probably reconfirmed their suspicions that Chinese users connecting to Facebook and Google were placing China’s national security interests in grave danger.

Meanwhile, the US government itself is not free from vulnerabilities to cyber-espionage or hackers. In 2013, Amazon Cloud Services had won a US$600 million contract that allows the CIA to share top-secret information with other intelligence agencies.

Although Amazon’s Web Services says its systems are capable of providing “Top Secret” level security that safeguards Washington’s massive trove of secrets, no doubt the deal makes the company an alluring target.

Attendees at Amazon.com Inc annual cloud computing conference walk past the Amazon Web Services log
Attendees at Amazon.com Inc annual cloud computing conference walk past the Amazon Web Services logo in Las Vegas, Nevada, US, November 30, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Salvador Rodriguez)

There is no telling how many would-be spies have already applied for jobs at the Seattle-based company.

Regardless, we certainly cannot rule out the possibility of future data breaches when it comes to high-profile US tech firms.

The world can only hope that these do not lead to catastrophic consequences, such as terrorists or enemies gaining access to the Pentagon’s deadliest secrets such as how the US Armed Forces’ smart technology weapons-guidance systems work and how to gain access to them.

For now, it looks as if China is fully aware of such risks and doing its best to avert that.

Tom McGregor is a commentator on Asia-Pacific affairs based in Beijing.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)

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