The People’s Republic of China has passed a law that requires technology companies to comply with all government requests for information, up to and including handing over encryption keys.
In a disturbing parallel with western-led efforts to weaken encryption, the Chinese government justified their new law with an appeal to counter-terrorism. In proposing the anti-terrorism law, China maintains that they face growing threats from militants and separatists, particularly in Xinjian province.
Li Shouwei, deputy head of the Chinese parliament’s criminal law division, compared the Chinese law to western counter-terrorism efforts.
“This rule accords with the actual work need of fighting terrorism and is basically the same as what other major countries in the world do,” Li told members of the press. He also stressed that the law did not amount to a government “backdoor” through encryption, a proposal that has been considered by several western governments including the UK and US.
An Weixing, head of the Public Security Ministry’s Counter-Terrorism division, told reporters that China faced a particular threat from Islamic separatists from East Turkestan, although human rights groups say that unrest in China’s eastern regions is caused by oppressive restrictions on the religion and culture of the region’s Muslim Uighur people.
“Terrorism is the public enemy of mankind, and the Chinese government will oppose all forms of terrorism,” An told reporters.
China’s attempt to weaken web encryption in the name of counter-terrorism is eerily similar to ongoing attempts to do the same in the west. The UK is currently in the process of passing a law that bears a resemblance to the Chinese legislation in many regards, including the requirement that companies store user data and hand it over to the government if required. The UK and China both claim that their laws do not weaken encryption, but in both cases they have been criticised by civil liberties groups who say otherwise.
It is currently unclear how China intends to enforce its law with regards to non-Chinese web companies. Apple CEO Tim Cook has taken a tough stance on encryption, slamming attempts in the UK and US to weaken users’ data privacy. Against the efforts of both the Chinese and western governments to weaken encryption, tech giants like Apple may be the user’s last line of defence.