Web patrol with a real-life Big Brother

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 April, 2010, 12:00am

Thought police who patrol for thought criminals are no longer just the stuff of George Orwell's classic dystopian novel 1984.

A growing army of tech-savvy police officers on the mainland patrol cyberspace around the clock, gaining instant knowledge of a Web user's location and even personal details.

While the existence of these shadowy officers is widely known, they rarely speak publicly about their work. However, the Sunday Morning Post has talked to one experienced internet officer in Guangdong, on condition of anonymity.

'We are increasingly saddled with tasks handed down from our bosses,' the 31-year-old says. 'Our workload has surged as the use of the internet has become more and more popular in the last few years.'

Monitoring internet cafes, tracking down anti-government comments, and fighting the spread of pornography are part of his everyday work. Hundreds of internet cafes are registered in his city of three million; they all fall under his eagle eye.

To see who is surfing the internet and from which cafe, he has only to turn on a computer programme, open a file, and click on the name of a cafe. Details of people in the cafe are instantly available. This is because users must present their identity cards for registration.

'We are the direct supervisors of internet cafes all over the city,' the officer explains.

What is his advice if you spread pornography, criticise the government or send out fraudulent e-mails from an internet cafe? 'Good luck,' comes his terse response.

And don't imagine you are safe if you make such comments online while surfing the internet at home. Cyber police can easily obtain your internet protocol address and details of the person under whose name the broadband service was purchased.

The officer's computer skills were noticed in 2004, when he was hired to patrol the internet. In the six years since then he estimates that he has arrested more than 50 people on various charges, and earned a few feathers for his cap.

He helped to bust a syndicate that sold pornography online and profited from organising naked webcam chats. He has also arrested triad members involved in internet scams.

All very commendable. But he has also arrested at least five dissidents.

Most cyber police officers are in their 20s and 30s. What sets them apart from normal officers is their high education levels and often bookish looks. 'Most of us have university degrees,' he says, proudly.

The ranking system for cyber police is different than for traditional officers. As they move up the ranks, they can become assistant engineers, engineers and chief engineers.

The officer says that as internet use has exploded on the mainland, there is a dire shortage of cyber officers. 'Having too few internet officers is a problem shared by cities across the country,' he says.

The result of this is that work pressure is heavy - and getting heavier. This comes with the realisation that they are a drop in the ocean compared with the hundreds of millions of internet users on the mainland.

The number of cyber police in his city has doubled in three years - but the force still numbers less than 50, although he says there are plans to launch a major recruitment scheme.

Hong Kong-based political commentator Johnny Lau Yui-siu says it is increasingly difficult for the central government to control cyberspace.

'With 380 million internet users, how many cyber officers can you hire to control them?'

He says the use of internet police officers to crack down on dissents is like building a dam to block a raging flood.

'People have become relatively well informed and it is hard to control them with backward policies,' Lau says. 'If the government keeps relying on such a dam, it's inevitable the flood will break it in the end.'