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A Small, But Growing Number Of People In China Say They Care About Data Privacy


China, like many other countries, surveils its citizens, each of whom produces a lot of online data. Very little of that data is stored securely or encrypted, which means China's surveillance state can easily be hacked. A small but growing number of people in China say they care about data privacy and they want better protections. NPR's Emily Feng reports from Beijing.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Wu Dong is an unlikely celebrity for an unlikely cause in China.

WU DONG: (Through interpreter) We trade our data privacy for convenience.

FENG: For Wu, it all began last year. He was reviewing hotels online and hid a camera in his hotel room to expose negligent cleaning practices. His videos went viral. But in retribution, staff at the hotel leaked his personal information, information that Chinese hotels must collect for the public security ministry but do not encrypt in any way. Wu Dong spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to track down who put his documents online.

WU: (Through interpreter) Every place you stay, they recognize you. You check into a hotel and when you leave, everyone comes over to circle you and say, oh, we know who you are.

FENG: One hotel employee was eventually find 500 yen, or about $80 U.S., for passing on the leak. But beyond that, the trail went cold. Wu Dong never found out who exactly doxed him.

WU: (Through interpreter) Data leakage is sunk into every corner of your life.

FENG: Wu's since become an activist of sorts, campaigning for harsher penalties for those who steal or leak data. Chinese consumers are becoming more wary of technology, even if it's being deployed in the name of public security. A recent survey found some 80% of people were uncomfortable with facial recognition methods now mainstream in China because they feared operators couldn't protect their personal biometric data.

I've just scooted around Beijing's 3rd Ring highway to get here. I'm in what looks like just a regular residential apartment complex, but I'm here to meet Yang Geng. He is a privacy pioneer and software engineer. Fittingly, for a privacy pioneer, his office is pretty tucked away.

Hey. Yang Geng?

YANG GENG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Yang Geng was once Amazon China's chief security officer but left to start Entropage. It's a company which provides encryption tools users can add to a messaging platform, like email or chat apps.

YANG: If the Internet develop as today, privacy eventually will be the most expensive commodity in the society.

FENG: A commodity affordable only to the rich or technologically savvy.

YANG: So I was trying to provide a tool to the people who are not any of those.

FENG: China has contradictory stances on digital privacy. On one hand, it wants porous technology so it can monitor communications between activists, for example, and control access to information. In the last two years, it's arrested or shut down scores of Chinese VPN providers, the software commonly used to jump China's great firewall. But China also recognizes that data theft and weak consumer protections are threats to social stability, and so China has given space to entrepreneurs like Yang Geng.

YANG: They usually take the approach of, let something happen and don't make the judgment too early and see how it goes.

FENG: Tens of thousands of messages are now encrypted each day using Entropage's tools. But Yang says that if the government did come knocking one day or there was evidence his technology was being used by, say, terrorists...

YANG: I probably would choose to shut it down myself because I certainly value life, peaceful environment, more than privacy data, right?

FENG: Wu Dong, the privacy advocate, sees otherwise.

WU: (Through interpreter) You have to make a fuss to such a degree that officials are forced to use some of their precious resources to help you.

FENG: But always well within the red lines that no one can cross in China, even for the sake of privacy.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER MOMMY'S "INSIDE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.