A man has been jailed by the Chinese authorities for the crime of selling virtual private network (VPN) software.
Deng Jiewei, 26, from Guangdong was handed a nine-month sentence for "providing software and tools for invading and illegally controlling the computer information system" according to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
Deng was arrested in August 2016 and sentenced in March, but the details have only just been made public. He had earned 14,000 yuan (£1,600) selling VPNs, which he had done since 2015 according to the paper.
In January this year China announced a 14-month campaign to crack down on VPNs in a bid to tighten online surveillance ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China which opens in October.
The announcement followed a demand that app stores operating in China must register with the government in a move that was justified on the grounds of IT security. "China's internet connection service market… has signs of disordered development that requires urgent regulation and governance," an official said ominously at the time.
As part of this measure, in June this year the Chinese government ordered the country's "big-three" telecoms and internet service providers, China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom, to completely block access to VPNs by February 2018. The crackdown also caused Apple to take a heavily criticised decision to remove VPN apps from its Chinese app store, and retail giant Alibaba was told to remove links to the privacy-enhancing software.
Unlike individual users, multinational firms operating in China are still permitted to use VPNs in what amounts to something of a legal grey area, but it is likely that this usage will be restricted to software approved by the government, which will presumably have backdoors installed to allow eavesdropping, raising fears of an increase in industrial espionage activities.
The arrest and charging of a small-scale supplier like Deng before the crackdown was announced is presumably meant to send a message to the Chinese population. The Chinese government is increasly strict about what websites its citizens can visit. Google, Facebook, Twitter and many other non-Chinese websites are blocked by the "Great Firewall", for example, and the reason for restricting VPNs is that they allow users to circumvent such restrictions, as well as encrypting traffic to prevent eavesdropping on their activities. The government is also known to be building profiles on every individual who goes online so they can be categorised in terms of their "social credit" - a score that measures how trustworthy they are.
Users of the social media site Weibo fear the authorities' attention will turn from sellers to users of VPNs.
"If selling a VPN means a conviction for ‘providing software and tools for invading and illegally controlling the computer information system', then everyone here who uses a VPN to evade the Great Firewall can also be convicted of illegally invading or illegally controlling the computer information system, right?" one commenter said.
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