China internet regulator has announced it is taking steps to stem the use of voice-changing software, a technology that has been used by activists on the audio chatroom app Clubhouse to disguise their voices from government agents monitoring the app.
The Cyberspace Administration said it had held talks with 11 major social media platforms including Tencent and Alibaba to find ways to counteract the practice, which it claimed could endanger state security through the use of “deep fake” digital manipulation.
It said it had called on police and China’s specialized internet police to “strengthen the security assessment of voice-based social media software and the use of new technologies and apps” to change the digital voiceprint generated when people speak or record their voices.
It said the 11 service providers had been instructed to report back with security assessments and improved risk prevention and control measures.
The statement on the agency’s website said the moves were needed to “safeguard national security, social order, and the public interest.”
An internet technician surnamed Zhan said government censors and internet police are extending the kind of controls that already exist for print content to include voice-based content as well.
“For example, if I were to send you a voice message using Douyin or some other platform, they will sample the first recording, and store it on their server,” he said. “This won’t be available to the public, but the the police will be able to access it.”
He said phone, internet, and social media providers will all be required to keep files of biometric data on all users in future, including voiceprints.
“As far as I am aware, public wifi networks like internet cafes and five-star hotels already have a mirror port … so that all of the data you enter or download must pass through a data port controlled by the police,” he said.
An online activist who gave only her surname Ding said the move is part of an ongoing clampdown on China’s social media giants.
“They are tightening controls yet again,” Ding said. “Their next step will be to go after Tencent, and then to nationalize Alibaba.”
Tightened controls in Hong Kong
Meanwhile, authorities in Hong Kong are moving ahead with plans to require real-name registration for mobile phone SIM cards bought in the city.
While a “consultation period” for the move is coming to an end this week, pro-democracy district councilors said there had been no public forum or communication channels through which the public could make their concerns known to the government.
Tsuen Wan District Councillor Katrina Chan said the move will treat the entire population like potential criminals. Currently, law enforcement agencies can only access the person data of telecoms customers with a warrant, but the proposed move will make it much easier to access it.
She also raised concerns about plans to bring in biometric scans on public transport, including facial recognition.
Earlier, a group of pro-democracy district councilors were ordered to leave the Sham Shui Po district offices after they tried to submit documents for the consultation.
The use of real-name registration for telecoms services and biometric scans in public places is already widespread in mainland China.
China started blocking Clubhouse for users lacking the tools to get around the Great Firewall in early February.
The block came after the app opened a rare window of opportunity for users in China to speak freely in Clubhouse’s moderated audio forums, in Mandarin, and beyond the reach of government censorship.
Unprecedented conversations were being had on normally banned topics between China-based users, who are fed the CCP’s official narrative on most topics for much of the time, and activists in less censored countries, as well as those in democratic Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang, according to user accounts posted to social media.
Some users have continued to use Clubhouse to discuss such topics in Mandarin, but with their voiceprints digitally disguised, to avoid being identified by the authorities.
Reported by Qiao Long, Chingman and Gigi Lee for RFA’s Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.