Green Dam Filtering Software a Censorship Boondoggle
Green Dam Filtering Software a Censorship Boondoggle

A salesman adjusts computer items at a supermarket in Beijing. The Chinese regime's Green Dam-Youth Escort filtering software has become a censorship boondoggle. (Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)
A salesman adjusts computer items at a supermarket in Beijing. The Chinese regime's Green Dam-Youth Escort filtering software has become a censorship boondoggle. (Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

Melamine in milk, lead in toys, and toxic drywall—these have been recent examples of the shoddy and corrupt production practices that occur in all parts of the Chinese economy. Now “Green Dam-Youth Escort” can be added to this list.

This software program, which China’s Ministry of Information and Information Technology (MIIT) says is to be used for filtering out pornography, is scheduled to be pre-installed in all computers sold in China after July 1.

After MIIT announced this new requirement, computer experts, Internet surfers, and human rights watchdogs immediately tested the software. Their two primary findings are shocking but not unexpected.

First, the blacklist planted in the computer by Green Dam is remotely controlled by the software manufacturer. While the manufacturer and MIIT claim that the blacklist only targets pornography, in fact, it also censors politically sensitive phrases. A team at the University of Michigan discovered a file named “FalunWord.lib” with 37,468 Chinese characters, of which over 90 percent are Falun Gong-related. In the file, the word “610,” referring to the special task force established to persecute Falun Gong, appears 63 times.

Second, Green Dam creates security vulnerabilities in the computer that has installed it. Green Dam’s system is very unstable. Sometimes, it doesn’t block a porn site. Sometimes, even if a site is benign, absent of any offensive material, Green Dam still shuts down the visited Web site. For no apparent reason, it even shuts down the Huanqiu website, a subordinate of the Chinese regime’s own Xinhua News Agency.

In other words, Green Dam is not a well-established program, nor is it a functional one. The entire program either steals from other well-developed programs or less-developed programs. Some of the program code libraries and configuration files are from the open-source image recognition software OpenCV, and some of the pornography URL blacklists are stolen from California-based developer Solid Oak’s Cybersitter software. In addition, Green Dam opens a back door in every computer that has it installed.

As the program is looked at more closely, the list of serious problems keeps growing. Why would the Chinese regime be willing to pay 41 million yuan, about US$6 million, for a piece of junk?

Conflict of Interest

Green Dam is actually the combination of two programs manufactured by two companies: Green Dam by Zhengzhou Jinhui Computer System Engineering Co. (Jinhui), and Youth Escort by Beijing Dazheng Human Language Technology Academy Co. (Dazheng).

On Jan. 14, 2008, the former Ministry of Information Industry (MII), now MIIT, issued an urgent notice requesting the Green Dam Internet filter software. There are two standards for testing this software, and both Jinhui and Dazheng are among those that set up the standards. Four months later, MIIT announced the bidding winners: Jinhui and Dazheng. That means that Jinhui and Dazheng had set up the rules of the bidding, were most likely involved in the testing, and successfully won the bid with a dysfunctional product.

In Western countries, this is called a conflict of interest.

Unworkable Concept

On Feb. 18, 2003, China News Service reported that the Institute of Acoustics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (IACAS) had developed an Internet censorship software program called “Falun Gong concept censorship system” using HNC (Hierarchical Network of Concepts) technology. It turned out that the system was developed by the HNC Institute, another name for Dazheng, which was set up by IACAS.

A conversation with one of the scientists at IACAS who was involved in the development of the software gives the impression that this was a program based on a theory that was far from any real application. This program was meant to work with the propaganda attacking Falun Gong. The developer used it to try to get money from the regime or to fulfill a regime-assigned mission that, given our current level of knowledge, appears to be impossible.

Dazheng was established in December 2000, right at the peak of the persecution of Falun Gong and in the early stages of the Golden Shield Project, the official name for the Great Firewall of China. Chen Xiaomeng, who would become the director of the board of Dazheng, was a successful businessman in Shenzhen at that time. He was called by his mentor, Xu Jialu, the former vice chairman of the standing committee of the People’s Congress, back to Beijing to set up this company Dazheng.

The “Falun Gong concept censorship system” was the first publicly announced product of Dazheng. Even though Dazheng was registered as a private company, it has been working with MIIT, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Beijing Committee of Science and Technology.

Six years passed, and this “Falun Gong concept censorship system” was never heard of again, until now—partially because it didn’t work very well, if at all. HNC is based on an entirely different theory than other filtering programs. It filters the information not by keywords, but by concept, or opinion. It analyzes the content of an article. If the content is anti-Falun Gong, the program lets it pass. If the content is pro-Falun Gong, the program blocks it, whether the article contains the word “Falun Gong” or not.

Doing this kind of calculation takes huge computer resources and slows down the computer. In addition, the image recognition component of Green Dam also drains computer resources. When people tested the free download of Green Dam, they found it slows down the computer and CPU usage jumps up to 100 percent. This is another reason why the Falun Gong concept censorship system couldn’t be used; if used to filter the Internet, it would jam the Internet. Now Green Dam transfers the jam to the individual computer.

Conflicting Systems

When the University of Michigan team found that the FalunWord file appeared to be a word list for a more sophisticated sentence processing algorithm, what they really discovered was an updated “Falun Gong concept censorship system” word library.

However, the design of Green Dam makes the inclusion of this concept censorship system futile, because it conflicts with the keyword filter. When an article with sensitive keywords is filtered, the article or the Web site with the article is blocked and there is nothing left to be analyzed. There is no need to judge the contents of the article because there will be no such article left to be judged.

During the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, the whole world witnessed how poorly built school buildings collapsed. The Chinese people began calling the construction of these Sichuan school buildings “tofu dregs.” These kinds of “Tofu Dregs Projects” are everywhere, in almost every field of made-in-China products. There is no reason for high technology to be an exception. Green Dam is the Tofu Dregs of the Great Firewall.

Whether the Green Dam represents the top technology of China’s Internet censorship, or if this far-from-the-best product can only win the bid in a rigged competition, in either case, the Great Firewall of China wouldn’t be as strong as it is now, or wouldn’t even be working at all, if not for the direct involvement of foreign technology.

Since the beginning, the Golden Shield has been helped by many Western companies. This long list starts with Nortel, which supplied the Golden Shield core equipment and claimed their products were used against Falun Gong practitioners. Also on the list of corporations that helped build Golden Shield are such large firms as Intel, Yahoo, Cisco, Sun Microsystems, and Motorola, according to Canadian researcher Greg Walton.

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