It’s safe to say most of us would be in the dark were we not able to freely access the internet. In the eyes of many, including the UN, internet access is considered a basic human right. Not surprising, considering how inextricably it’s interlinked with modern society. But not every country sees it that way, and in Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Russia (to a lesser degree), and much of the Middle East, internet surveillance and censorship is pervasive. And then there is China.
Despite it being the 4th most popular travel destination (the U.S. is 3rd), censorship of the internet in China is some of the most stringent in the world. To say as much almost feels like an understatement. Government censorship stifles free expression — not just that of its citizens, but that of anyone within its borders. For American companies doing business in China, the security concerns are many.
China is not shy about stealing intellectual property. It is rampant and threatens the bottom line of businesses stateside. They are also not shy about surveilling foreigners who visit China, or anyone who visits a Chinese-owned establishment around the world. During his 2015 visit to the UN General Assembly in New York, President Obama broke with decades of tradition when he did not stay at the Waldorf-Astoria. The reasoning: the world-famous hotel had just been acquired by the Anbang Insurance Group, a Beijing-based conglomerate controlled by the Chinese government, and every square inch of the property could be subject to on-site or remote monitoring.
The short version: everything is bugged, and you should not have any reasonable expectation of privacy when traveling to China. If this sounds like something out of a spy thriller, that’s because it is. It is espionage, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do for work. You are probably going to be spied on a little.
While some might chalk this up to the cost of doing business in China, it all adds up to a security nightmare — and we are really only just getting started.
Say you want to make a phone call back home to tell your boss how that important meeting went. Even if you are able to connect to a secure phone line, someone could still “overhear” your side of the conversation. And if you’re really of interest, there doesn’t even have to be monitoring equipment hidden in your room. Heck, YOU don’t even have to be in your room. A parabolic antenna can target and pick up your conversation from a mile away, whether you’re indoors, outside, or whispering in each other’s ears. The point: don’t hold confidential conversations out loud. Message them securely — protip: steer clear of WhatsApp; any government intel agency worth its salt has long-since cracked it — and shield your screen when you do. There are probably also cameras. (Cue: “Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell.)
Travelers to China should be aware that their possessions may be searched without your knowledge or permission. That includes any articles or luggage you leave in your hotel room when you go out for the day. While doing background research for this article we found a story of a gentleman who’d been to China a number of times on business. He’d always made a habit of bringing his devices with him wherever he went, for security reasons, but this time he didn’t want to be weighed down by his laptop. As he walked away from the hotel he began to second-guess his decision, and decided to return for it. He entered his room to find two men in suits fiddling with his laptop. “Wrong room,” they claimed. They looked suspiciously like intelligence agents.
The moral of the story is that you never, ever, ever, EVER let your devices leave your sight when traveling in China. Not even once. Don’t have it sitting out on a conference room table within someone else’s reach, and do not let anyone else touch it for any reason. If you do, assume it’s compromised.
Also, be aware of what devices you are bringing into the country. It’s recommended that you never enter China with anything other than a burner device. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but it does need to be something that you’re prepared to trash, or unceremoniously drop in a lake (on purpose). If the trip is short, this can be a major inconvenience — but a $199 Chromebook is a pittance of a business expense compared to the cost of a breach down the line. Cyber threat intelligence has seen China ramping up its attacks on American businesses lately, all for commercial gain.
If you opt to not travel with a burner device, bear in mind that any device you do bring back home should be assessed for risk and if needed reformatted, and in extreme cases of sensitivity, possibly disassembled by an IT technician to check for any hardware installed covertly. You don’t want to bring the surveillance home!
While everything we’ve mentioned so far has talked about the state of government surveillance, there’s also censorship that travelers have to contend.
Foreign visitors in China who expect the internet to work like it does back home are in for a rude awakening. Not only is it much slower and less reliable that your beloved broadband (or 4G connection), but all travelers should expect their ability to communicate with anyone back home to be extremely curtailed.
China’s government has long been afraid of foreign influence. Anything it perceives as being “too West” is looked upon as a threat to the status quo: it’s an ironclad communist rule. What China refers to as its Golden Shield Project, courtesy of its state-owned ISP’s, is more colloquially known as the Great Firewall of China. Sites blocked in mainland China include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all things Google (YouTube, Maps, Gmail, Drive), Microsoft OneDrive, Hootsuite, Whatsapp, Dropbox, streaming sites like Netflix, HBO, and Spotify, Wikipedia, Slack, and many major international media outlets.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg.
The only workaround is to plan ahead and use a VPN that isn’t yet blocked by the Chinese government. By routing your connection through a secure internet tunnel, you’ll be able to skirt China’s extensive filtering — and keep your communications from being surveilled as well. Keep in mind, VPN sites are blocked in China, so you need to make sure your service is up and running before you travel.
One other thing you should do before you travel: reach out to us and ask for help!
Contact JNT TEK today for help planning your corporate travel to China, so that you never have to worry about doing business securely.