China’s cyberpolice cancelling mobile service for using virtual private networks

china-mobile-service-vpn-access-cancelledGamblers in China who access international online gambling sites using virtual private networks (VPN) could find their telecom service cancelled and reconnecting would require a visit to the local police station.

This week, the New York Times reported that an unknown number of residents in China’s Xinjiang region had their mobile service cancelled after receiving text messages instructing them to “contact the cyberpolice affiliated with the police station in your vicinity.”

One user who visited the police told the Times that there were around 20 other people at the station for similar reasons. Police reportedly told affected users that their service had been cancelled for either (a) improper identification, (b) having downloaded international messaging apps like WhatsApp or Telegram, or (c) using VPNs to bypass China’s infamous Great Firewall, which blocks access to sites the government doesn’t want its citizens to visit, including gambling sites.

Xinjiang is home to most of China’s restless Uighur minority, which practices the Islamic faith. Beijing blamed Uighurs for the ethnic riots that gripped the region in 2009, during which the authorities temporarily blocked local access to the internet.

This new selective cancellation of mobile services in Xinjiang reportedly began shortly after the recent terror attacks in Paris by Islamist extremists, who reports have claimed communicated via apps like Telegram. So the authorities in Xinjiang could be responding to some perceived security threat, but the region is a known testing ground for online censorship programs later expanded to the rest of the country.

VPNs are one of the primary methods by which Chinese punters access international online gambling sites. China is constantly upgrading its systems to reduce VPN effectiveness but the cancellation of mobile contracts is a new and far more personalized approach. A national implementation of such a program could have significant impact on China-facing online gambling operators.

Mobile is by far the most popular form of internet access in China. The China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) released a report in July that said 89% of Chinese internet users used their phone to go online compared to just 68% who used a desktop computer.

Marketing agency We Are Social’s Digital Statshot of China’s internet market in August showed desktop and laptop computers accounted for 56% of all web pages accessed, 29% less than it was in August 2014. Meanwhile, the number of web page requests from mobile devices increased by 136% to 42% of the total. We Are Social projected that over half of all China’s web activity will be mobile by early 2016.