Remember the prisoners as if chained with them – those who are mistreated – since you yourselves are in the body also. Hebrews 13:3 NKJV
Over the last few weeks the interwebs have been ablaze with reports of the Chinese Government actively monitoring Skype’s instant messaging feature.
At first glance this doesn’t seem like a big deal. After all, everyone knows that China actively spies on its own citizens.
However, several recent discoveries indicate that the problem is far worse than ever imagined. Furthermore the new revelations highlight that we as believers must exercise extreme caution when using the internet to communicate with other Christians who are living and/or serving in restricted areas.
So what exactly is the big deal? Consider this:
- China uses a keyword list to flag subversive speech. The list of keywords is embedded right into the TOM-Skype software that is resident on users’ computers. Note: TOM-Skype is the Chinese version of Skype that is approved for use in China by the Chinese Government. When someone outside of China uses the regular version Skype to instant message someone in China– the person in China will probably be using TOM-Skype.
- China remotely updates the list of keywords regularly. Evidence suggests that the list is updated daily.
- The ever evolving keyword list reveals that the Chinese are most actively looking for politically subversive speech and location specific information. Think: locations of upcoming political protests.
- China considers unregistered local churches to be subversive.
- While less than 5% of the words are considered ‘religious’ (by various researchers) — it is highly significant that religious words are on the list. For example, included are the names of a few ‘illegal’ churches that the Chinese Government is particularly interested in.
- China is using this technology to spy on all of Skype’s instant messages: both outgoing and incoming messages. Only one of the two participants in the conversion need to be using TOM-Skype for the Chinese to monitor what both are saying.
- Skype’s owner (US computer giant Microsoft) is aware of how its software is being used by the Chinese. Even worse than simply looking the other way, some are even accusing Microsoft of aiding and abetting the Chinese.
What does all of this mean for Christians? First, this is another reminder that the internet is inherently insecure. Anything you say or do online can be intercepted potentially putting yourself and/or others at risk. Secondly, it can be assumed that if the Chinese are monitoring Skype they are also monitoring other methods of communication. And thirdly, if the Chinese are monitoring the activities of Christians it must be assumed that other governments hostel to the gospel are also listening in on the conversations of believers.
What should we do? Should we abandon the internet? No… this would be an overreaction. Rather we must exercise extreme caution when using various internet technologies to communicate with believers in restricted areas.
Otherwise we are putting our brothers and sisters at risk. Oh be careful little fingers what you type!
BloombergBusinessweek: Cracking China’s Skype Surveillance Software
ZDNet: 1,168 keywords Skype uses to censor, monitor its Chinese users
University of New Mexico: TOM-Skype Research
Jeffrey Knockel: Links to his TOM-Skype research papers