PRC Spying, Malware and Disinformation Campaigns Push Hong Kong Dissidents to Underground Communications Channels

Following the anti-extradition protests that spanned from 2019 into 2020, the Chinese Communist Party has stepped up its digital actions against Hong Kong activists and dissidents. A new report from threat intelligence firm Intsights finds that aggressive disinformation campaigns and related measures have forced organizers to move to the digital underground, using encryption and the dark web to keep the PRC from observing and inserting itself into their communications.

Disinformation campaigns, mass surveillance drive “dark web” uptick in Hong Kong

Though the Hong Kong street protests have since dissipated, tensions have nevertheless remained high as the Chinese government has aggressively moved to control the flow of information in the region. It has also made mass arrests of protesters under charges such as “subverting state power.” The PRC has also been conducting blanket surveillance that sweeps up even those that are not politically involved, for example monitoring and censoring Zoom conferences organized by businesses and schools. The country’s national security laws require companies based in its territory to turn over any information requested by the government.

Dissidents have responded to disinformation campaigns and surveillance by moving their communications to encrypted messaging apps and dark web forums. However, the researchers warn that this opens up inexperienced navigators to a new realm of criminal threats; some paid services have sprung up to safely guide activists and dissidents to the clandestine meeting places and resources that they are seeking.

The dark web is best known for the sale of illicit goods, everything from credit card skimming equipment to illegal drugs. This is the world that novices must learn to navigate, generally without assistance (unless they pay for it). And when they do find homes for political discussion, they are not necessarily ideologically friendly. The report finds that the most popular Chinese-language discussion forums on the dark web actually tend to be pro-PRC. And the dark web is not free from the eyes of the government; posts from users indicate that Chinese espionage agents monitor at…