China's private data-brokers will sell you full dossiers on anyone in the country

China is engaged in a bizarre dystopian experiment to use social network ratings to punish political dissidence, "antisocial behavior" and noncomformity, using data pulled from many sources, including purchases on China's major ecommerce networks like Alibaba; but you don't have to be the Chinese government to spy on people with an extraordinary degree of creepy precision: for a very small amount of money, China's private data-brokers will let you spy on anyone in the country.

An expose in Guanzhou's South Metropolis Daily showed that for about $100, you can get a dossier on anyone in China including "a full history of hotel rooms checked into, airline flights taken, internet cafes visited, border entries and exits, apartment rentals, real estate holdings — even deposit records from the country's four major banks" — for an additional fee, you could track your target's movements in realtime. Other services include the names of people who stayed in your target's hotel rooms with them.

Hoping to gauge the reliability of the mobile location services on offer, the reporters obtained permission from yet another colleague, sharing their mobile number with the tracking firm and paying a fee of 600 yuan.

Thirty minutes later, the reporters received an image of that colleague's position, including a map and GPS coordinates. The coordinates perfectly matched the colleague's reported location.

Owing perhaps to censorship guidelines, the Southern Metropolis Daily report did not draw out the broader implications of its findings — that either government and police insiders are routinely selling access to a treasure trove of personal information, or that national databases are vulnerable to outside hacking.

China may have Big Brother ambitions for social control. And President Xi Jinping appears to many observers to match these ambitions with his own unprecedented consolidation of power. But this privacy horror story — "Terrifying!" its headline began — is a sobering reminder of the porous and fragmented nature of China's institutions.

Cashing in on dystopia
[David Bandurski/Sup China]