Computer Censorship Imported From Shanghai to New York

Newly purchased iMac computer filters out Falun Gong-related websites
April 3, 2013 Updated: December 15, 2013

NEW YORK—A few days ago a Falun Gong practitioner in New York turned on his brand new iMac-27 computer—one of the best-selling desktop computers sold—and tried to open, a Falun Gong website.

The website opened briefly, and then closed. The practitioner then tried The Epoch Times website, website which reports regularly on Falun Gong. The same thing happened. And so on for any other websites related to the Falun Gong spiritual practice.

When the practitioner opened websites not related to Falun Gong, the computer functioned normally. 

This practitioner does work that the Chinese Communist Party would consider sensitive, and his or her identity is being withheld for security reasons.

Upon examining the shipping bill for the computer, the practitioner noticed something odd. While the computer had been bought from the U.S. Apple company website, the computer was shipped from Shanghai, not once but twice. The computer had been shipped from Apple in Shanghai to Anchorage, then back to Shanghai, and then was almost immediately reshipped to New York. 

When Apple was contacted and asked to exchange the defective computer for a new one, on the grounds that no repair could be sure of correcting the problem, Apple refused. Apple insisted the computer should be brought in for repair. 

Mr. Zhao is a computer and Internet security specialist based in New York. He suspects that the computer was modified in Shanghai in order to filter out any Falun Gong-related websites. He also speculated that the software that filtered the Internet searches done on the computer would also monitor the computer’s use.

This can be done in a few ways, according to Zhao. If the intention is to monitor a large number of computers, the computer hardware can be modified and firmware—a basic set of instructions embedded in hardware—installed.

Or, software can be individually installed on the computer. “There’s a more advanced program that runs directly in the user’s operating system,” Zhao said. “This software is specially written and compiled, without any file name and is hidden in the operating system. It periodically sends your files to a designated server, and hackers regularly retrieve the files from that server.”

Another possibility, Zhao said, is that a precompiled program can be installed on the computer that sends information to a remote location as soon as the computer goes online. The computer can then be monitored. 

The tools for keeping tabs on and censoring what could be read on individual PCs were developed in China a few years ago. The People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued a notice on May 19, 2009, requiring that all computers sold in China after July 1, 2009, have filtering and monitoring software installed.

The regime pulled the plug on that operation soon after the implementation date, although approximately 20 million computers sold in China in 2009 are believed to have had Green Dam Youth Escort software installed on them. 

Green Dam was billed as anti-pornography software, but the program does more. It was reported to send a history of Internet usage to a remote location and to take a screen shot of the computer’s monitor every three minutes. And the program did not mainly target pornography—it targeted Falun Gong.

A team at the computer, science, and engineering department at the University of Michigan analyzed the software in June 2009. It found that of the 35,860 Chinese words that the program filters, approximately 35,440 are related to Falun Gong.

The researchers write, “We also found what appears to be a word list for a more sophisticated sentence processing algorithm in the unencrypted file FalunWord.lib. When Green Dam detects these words, the offending program is forcibly closed and an error image (shown above) is displayed.”

The behavior the University of Michigan researchers describe seems to be what the purchaser of the iMac experienced.

It is unclear why a computer purchased in New York would mimic the behavior of a computer with Green Dam software on it. As of press time, Apple had not responded to a phone message asking for comment.

Zhao believes that the Chinese Communist Party wished to target this individual Falun Gong practitioner. 

It is also possible, Zhao said, that, even though the Green Dam program was publicly suspended, filtering software that targets Falun Gong is still being installed on some computers sold in China.

Translated by John Wang and Aileen Wu. Written in English by Stephen Gregory.