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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Travel Tips: Who Will Be Watching You In Beijing?

July 10, 2008

Rebecca Ruiz
July 8, 2008,

When traveling to China for the Olympics this summer, leave any
expectation of privacy at the border. Instead, prepare for possible
eavesdropping and surveillance--from listening devices in hotel rooms
to bugged laptops and personal digital assistants to informers posing
as friendly strangers.

Those who laugh at the seeming paranoia would be wise to remember
that the U.S. recently accused Chinese authorities of allegedly
copying data from the laptop of a visiting trade official last year
and attempting to hack into the Commerce Department. The Chinese
denied the allegations.

The U.S. Department of State advises tourists not to expect privacy
in public or private locations, particularly in hotels, but a
spokesman declined to comment further.

Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington,
D.C., was almost as tight-lipped. He declined to address specific
allegations of spying on foreigners at the Olympics.

"No special security measures will be arranged beyond universally
adopted international practice at public venues, hotels and offices
in China," he says. "Privacy in China will be guaranteed according to the law."

But security experts say that Chinese law has few protections for
individual privacy and that a preexisting network of surveillance
tools may be used to closely track visitors from around the world

, including business leaders and government officials.

Keeping Close Watch

Among other tactics, authorities are expected to watch Beijing
streets remotely with an estimated 265,000 closed-circuit television
cameras, deploy an estimated 100,000 informants to report potentially
illegal activity, and heighten the monitoring of electronic and
Internet communication. Olympics tickets for the opening and closing
ceremonies will be embedded with a microchip containing passport
information, a photograph, addresses and telephone numbers.

Though the Chinese government has watched its citizens for decades in
an effort to maintain social order and silence dissidents, foreigners
traveling to China for the Olympics may be of special interest if
they express curiosity about sensitive topics like Tibet or
Christianity--or if they have access to data and information that
would increase economic or technological competitiveness. There are
ways to safeguard your privacy, but they require a degree of advanced
planning and, most important, the assumption that nothing is private.

It may be hard to adopt this mentality, especially since China can
often seem like a free society on the surface, but Nicholas Bequelin,
a Hong-Kong based China researcher for the Human Rights Watch, warns
of the contradictions.

"Here's the thing that is hard to reconcile," he says, "China is not
a police state in the style of the Soviet Union. This is a modern,
vibrant, seemingly open society, and the police is all-powerful, and
[the police force] has been modernized and strengthened by the use of
modern technology."

Know The Threats
There is no escaping the gaze of the police while walking the streets
of Beijing, or even in Olympic venues, where 2,000 closed-circuit
television cameras have been installed. But experts like Bequelin are
less concerned about cameras used to deter crime, as they are in New
York and London. Instead, he is wary of the fact that there are no
laws to protect those who appear in the recorded video images.

"In China you don't have any safeguards or privacy laws," he says.
"The utilization of these images is open-ended." Authorities, for
instance, can retrace a person's steps to see every interaction and
meeting. This can have worrisome implications for foreign visitors,
for whom there is no discrete business meeting.

There are also consequences for locals. Says Bequelin: "The idea is
to build a membrane between foreigners and Chinese people--in
particular disgruntled Chinese citizens." The government is working
hard to show the world a harmonious society, and authorities will be
evaluating the interactions of foreigners and residents. By engaging
or questioning a local too aggressively, tourists may subject him or
her to scrutiny and monitoring.

Though intrusive, cameras are the least of a tourist's concerns.
Bruce McIndoe, president of the security consulting company iJet,
routinely warns his corporate clients about threats to their
electronic security.

"What business people need to be aware of," he says, "is that the
Chinese are very clear about who is coming into the country. You
could be a senior level executive or a scientist and they will target
you for surveillance."

What do you think of the warnings of McIndoe and Bequelin? Weigh in.
Post your thoughts in the Reader Comment section below.

McIndoe says the tracking usually begins with the temporary
confiscation of a laptop, cellphone or PDA at customs. If this
happens, consider it a "virtual guarantee" that its contents will
copied, including everything from sensitive call lists to clues on
how to infiltrate a network back home. Calls and text messages can
also be remotely monitored, particularly if a key word like Tibet or
Falun Gong has triggered the surveillance system.

Safest Bets
Unfortunately, cellphones or PDAs purchased outside of China are not
immune to eavesdropping. Once a call or text goes through the
country's cellphone towers, it may be picked up by authorities.
McIndoe's advice is to leave these devices at home or wipe them clean
of information before arriving. In some cases, employers keep
sanitized loaner laptops on hand for this purpose. Either way,
devices should be professionally scanned for bugs if they return to the U.S.

Though it may seem safer, e-mailing from an Internet cafe is the
worst alternative. These are aggressively monitored by authorities
interested in browsing and e-mailing activities. McIndoe warns that
log-in usernames and passwords are easily captured and that accessing
a virtual private network from a cafe or any wi-fi hotspot can expose
the system to malicious software. Exercise caution about accessing
e-mail accounts and be sure to change logins upon returning home.

Bequelin says that Beijing's biggest surveillance system is the
neighborhood committee. He estimates that about 100,000 of its
Communist Party members have been mobilized to act as informants
during the games. They are interested in finding out whom foreigners
know in China and whether they have an ulterior motive, such as
converting people to Christianity or participating in a demonstration
about Tibet. Tourists should be receptive to strangers who approach
them, but also be skeptical of their intentions.

Despite the warnings, Bequelin says that tourists should express
their observations gently.

"People shouldn't feel that they have no right to speak," he says.
"This is a good opportunity for the Chinese government to hear what
people living in a free country think."
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