China Attacks Itself

China's decision to force the use of the "Green Dam" censorware on every PC gives us the latest—and possibly the most glaring—example of a social auto-immune disorder.

chinese embassy sealIn its efforts to stop its citizens from engaging in behaviors that it doesn't like, the Chinese government has decided to require the adoption of "Green Dam," a form of censorware. Green Dam has significant known flaws—not the least of which being gaping security holes allowing the easy seizure of control of the PC by a remote hacker. Security experts examining the code were able to swiftly assemble a Web page that would crash any Green Dam-hobbled browser, and described (but did not make available) similar code that could completely take control of a PC running Green Dam.

(The Web site Wikileaks reportedly has a copy of the remote-capture code, but I can't verify this. I'm currently in Sydney, Australia, and in a lovely bit of irony, the Wikileaks site is blocked by Australia's national censor filters.)

Updates to the Green Dam software have failed to deal with these flaws; security reviewers have noted that many of the security holes come from bad programming practices (using deprecated code, not stopping buffer overruns, and the like), so the software likely contains even more security problems than the reviewers found after a few hours of testing.

If these flaws aren't fixed quickly, China may well have crippled its own burgeoning digital economy, and certainly will have left itself open to overwhelming "cyber-attacks" from those opposed to the Chinese government. If Beijing requires the use of Green Dam in official computers, or those used by key infrastructure systems, the impact of this gaping security hole could be shocking.

green damBut even without the security holes, by blocking a wide array of terms and phrases, and even trying to stop pornography by filtering any image with "large amounts" of "skin tone" colors, the Green Dam software will have perverse effects on behavior. As we've seen with every censorware implementation, non-pornographic sites can get swept up in the fight to Protect the Children, usually health information providers. Perhaps more problematic for the Chinese government, such a ham-fisted effort to censor all computer use is certain to lead to widespread efforts to disable, work-around, or otherwise ignore the software—in short, undermining perceptions of government legitimacy.

This move by China's government has all the trappings of a social auto-immune disorder.

Back in September 2007, I wrote about this metaphor for understanding unintended consequences over at Open the Future. We see, time and again, efforts undertaken to protect the social body from some kind of feared harm instead resulting in real damage to society. It struck me that there was a strong parallel to medical auto-immune disorders, where the body's own immune system goes on the attack against the body itself. A minor but familiar example of a social auto-immune disorder is the "security theater" in airports, such as having to remove shoes, dump liquids, and the like. Security experts such as Bruce Schneier see such measures as having dubious value in actually preventing a terrorist attack, while having a measurable, and significant, economic cost.

pc mall(The concept apparently has some conceptual value. Earlier this month, in a bit of parallel thinking, the Yorkshire Ranter" elaborated on the idea, building on David Kilcullen's 2009 The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One.)

The problem with social auto-immune disorders is that because they're responses to perceived systemic threats, it can be very difficult for more thoughtful leadership to scale back the reaction. Any successful attack subsequent to the scaling back of an overreaction—no matter how unrelated to the attempted defense—would be seen as evidence that the initial overreaction was correct. The more thoughtful leadership would be vilified by political rivals, whether on the pages of national newspapers or in Party meetings. Thus, bad decisions, with clearly harmful results, can become institutionalized.

If the impact of the Green Dam censorware on China's technological backbone is as bad as it could be, China may well have just given up any pretense at global leadership this century.

Related Stories:
Green Dam Meets the Great Firewall: China Adds a New Wrinkle to Web Censorship
Backlash Mounts Against China's Mandated Web Censorship Software

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