Controversy erupted this week over reports that the Chinese government plans to require all computers sold in the country to come with software that screens for objectionable websites. Although initial criticism came from privacy advocates and those most concerned about censorship, experts have also now found that the software could introduce critical security risks to computers across the country.
According to the BBC, the software communicates in plain text with central servers at its parent company. Not only does this potentially place personal information in the hands of eavesdroppers, but it could also allow hackers to take over PCs running the software, creating a massive zombie network that could deliver spam or attack other computers across the globe.
The report adds that the software does not seem to work as intended, sometimes blocking ordinary websites and failing to block others that contain objectionable content. And the software appears to work only on Microsoft Windows, not on Macs or Linux machines.
The news, while disturbing, is unsurprising. It’s not the first time that attempts to censor and monitor users have placed personal information at risk. Late last year, for example, researchers at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto uncovered massive surveillance of users of instant-messaging service TOM-Skype, largely because the data being collected was unprotected and accessible over the Internet.
The Internet does not lend itself to central control, and China’s government continues to struggle with that fact, both on a philosophical level, as the larger debate on censorship shows, and on a technical level.