Even the BBC’s China correspondent — already a closely watched man, you’d imagine — was left more than a little unsettled by his latest experience with the Chinese surveillance state.
In this piece, Stephen McDonell details how, after posting, without captions, some pictures of a demonstration marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he was locked out of WeChat:
[W]hen I tried to log back in, a new message appeared: “This WeChat account has been suspected of spreading malicious rumours and has been temporarily blocked…”
That part isn’t surprising, to a point. What sends a bit of a chill, though, is what he has to do a day later in order to get back onto the service:
I was given time to try and log in again the next day after my penalty had been served.
When I did I had to push “agree and unblock” under the stated reason of “spread malicious rumours”.
So this rumour-monger clicked on “agree”.
Then came a stage I was not prepared for. “Faceprint is required for security purposes,” it said.
I was instructed to hold my phone up – to “face front camera straight on” – looking directly at the image of a human head. Then told to “Read numbers aloud in Mandarin Chinese”.
Not a database you’d want to be on.
What’s also concerning, at a time when we think about the power and reach of tech firms, is McDonnell’s point that he had little option but to go through the steps — it’s very difficult to live in China without using the app.