Automation of Telephone Call Monitoring in China

[ After writing this blog article, I got an interesting tweet from China about phone monitoring. 重要对话用 @telegram 端对端加密,电话短信早就被监控着了。” For important conversations use Telegram Messanger ( )with its end-to-end encyption. Telephones and instant messaging have been being monitored for quite a while.”]
 The Economist on January 27 published the article “In China, consumers are becoming more anxious about data privacy — will this impede government snooping” about how Chinese are getting more concerned about data privacy.  China has some of the most active e-commerce websites in the world with much of the activity coming from the smartphones in the hands of hundreds of millions of Chinese.

Consumers in China have good cause to worry. Data collected through one medium can often end up in another. A man who talked on his mobile phone one day about picking strawberries said that when he used his phone the next day to open Toutiao, a news aggregator driven by artificial intelligence (AI), his news was all about strawberries. His post on the experience went viral in January. Toutiao denied it was snooping but conceded, blandly, that the story revealed a growing public “awareness of privacy”.

In the United States, at least until very recently, most people have generally been much more concerned about government snooping about their phone calls and internet data than with corporate snooping.  When they sign up to use many free smartphone applications, people often sign off to access to many functions (microphone, camera) to the app sponsor without considering how much of their privacy they are giving away to a corporation that might well sell it on to some other data aggregator.

I wonder how that works in China?

Telephone Monitoring and Me in China

I have always been curious about telephone monitoring since I was the object of telephone monitoring during the ten years I worked in China as a U.S. diplomat.  For the first month while I was at U.S. Embassy Beijing in 1996, my telephone had a funny humming noise.  I wondered whether that was because the monitoring people had bad equipment or because they thought they could intimidate me that way.  The funny hum went away after a month.  I supposed that the monitors must have decided that I was actually just a boring diplomat instead of somebody more exciting like a spy.


After that I only heard the funny home on my cellphone when I was travelling — but never while I was home in Beijing.  I always wondered — could the monitoring equipment be that bad or did they want to remind me that my conversations were being recorded. From an intelligence collection perspective, reminding me with that helpful hum that my phone calls were being recorded wouldn’t be a good idea.  One of the things I learned during my career is not to be too quick to think people are out to get you when incompetence is often a perfectly plausible explanation.  I never figured out just what was going on.

There were huts on top of all the buildings in the Tayuan Diplomatic Compound in Beijing where we lived. One time on of my colleagues told me how his five year old son was walking on the stairway when he saw that the door to the stairway leading to the roof hut was open.  He later told his father that he walked up the stairway and saw a man inside “with all kinds of computers and stuff”.  Perhaps that was someone changing tapes or adjusting the recordings.  Next to the compound was a five-story telephone exchange building — I imagined that there must be many people in there listening to phone calls in many foreign languages.

Ten years later, when I was working at the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu,  I was walking with my friend, the now-deceased Chengdu writer Yin Shuping, past a very big telephone exchange building in the county seat city where he lived.   I said I was surprised at how large the building was.  Yin answered, “That’s because they need a lot of room for all the people listening in on telephone calls. Every county seat in China has a big telephone exchange building for that.”

I have always been astonished at the size of China’s domestic security workforce. For example, I remember when President Clinton visited China in 1998, his motorcade drove past my apartment at the Tayuan Diplomatic Compound there were miles and miles of  Chinese plainclothesmen every three feet or so.  They made it clear that they didn’t want to be in my photos either. So I figured they must be real plainclothesmen and not just some random people helping out.

In China the size of the police response to say a few demonstrators seemed wildly disproportionate to the number of protesters. Maybe they were worried that a “single spark can light a prairie fire” like Chairman Mao used to say. China’s domestic security spending exceeds China’s total military spending.  In the U.S., total annual spending on policing is over USD 100 billion while total military spending (2015) was about USD 600 billion. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so astonished since the U.S. military is so large and since I live here I consciously and unconsciously take the U.S. experience as a reference point.  I wonder what the ratio of police to military spending is in other countries.

Voice Recognition as a Tool for the Authorities in China

I wonder if this means there is widespread use of voice recognition technology on phone calls in China?  Perhaps voice recognition technology is lightening the phone call monitoring load for the Party.  Monitoring conversations in the various dialects of Mandarin and indeed the many different languages — Shanghaiese, Cantonese, Fuhouhua, Chaozhouhua, Minnanyu etc. — in the Chinese language family must be quite a challenge!

Looking around online, I saw a website offering a Chinese language voice recognition product that claimed to be suitable for generating transcripts of courtroom proceedings — actually saying it is for “intelligent courtrooms”.  One would hope that all courtrooms are intelligent courtrooms so perhaps a better translation would be cyber-augmented or something.   I hope the automatic court transcript generating system is reliable!



语音识别(Automatic Speech Recognition)服务,应用业界最先进的深度学习算法,具备出色的语音转文字、关键词检索、静音检测、语速检测、情绪识别能力。全面满足电话录音质检、实时语音输入、直播字幕及审核等多种场景下的语音处理需求。
Looking further I found a discussion of voice recognition technology in connection to the case cited in The Economist article above. The gist of the article: the Chinese corporate website belonging to a company in the Alibaba e-commerce group said, ‘No,  it isn’t true, that just isn’t possible with current technology. But the journalist asked a university prof expert on voice recognition technology Professor Xu Mingxing of Tsinghua University who said just the opposite “Current technology makes this automatic voice recognition of a phone conversation in this case entirely possible.”

Excerpt from the article  百度读取通讯录被告 今日头条陷“窃听风云”(Baidu Accused of Monitoring Record of Communications,  Jinri Toutiao Is Caught up in the “Bugging Cloud” Controversy)          

— “声音识别技术窃听用户隐私  (Using Voice Recognition Technology for Surreptitious Monitoring Invades User Privacy)






I wonder how effective this automated monitoring is?  Does it just pick out and flag some key words or does it do get enough of a conversation to do more useful monitoring that can pick out from many thousands of telephone calls the several that are worth the time of a human operator?   Background noises and the different dialects and languages spoken by people on the phone make monitoring more difficult.  I imagine with the massive investments now seen in China for domestic political security there must be quite a bit of work underway to develop these systems.
With the parallel applications developed for market research in the shopping trends of hundreds of millions of Chinese customers, there must be many commercial applications that are finding domestic security applications with the authorities, both in China and in other countries.
Improved technology now means that China can now cut its telephone monitoring workforce or it can now monitor a much higher proportion of all phone calls.
Maybe the next time I go to China I should talk on the phone in Pig Latin. Maybe there is not a voice recognition app for that yet!

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
This entry was posted in National Security 安全, Science, Technology and Academic 科技学术, Society 社会 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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