Updated: Aug 21
As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is now underway, media personnel covering the event have been provided with Alibaba Cloud Pins to let them network by exchanging social media information with one another from 23 July to 8 August 2021. But considering the company's past with the Chinese government, the device could be used to unwittingly track journalists.
The Cloud Pin works as a digital name tag allowing users to add people to their friend list as well as share daily achievements like step counts and the number of friends they have. To connect with new friends or exchange profiles, users must tap pins with another.
Each person automatically earns five of the 33 Olympics-inspired digital pin artworks upon receiving the badge. But if they want to collect the rest, they have to make more friends.
As a user will only be able to unlock a new virtual pin design every time they gain five new friends, the device incentivises information sharing.
The Alibaba Cloud Pin App facilitates the entire badge experience, which starts with a person registering themselves on the app by inputting their email address and name. They may choose to include their different social media usernames on their profile. Currently, the app only supports Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
However, online users have raised concerns about the Cloud Pin as the information it stores could be exploited by Alibaba, which is legally required to follow China’s Data Security Law (DSL).
The act — passed on 10 June 2021 — mandates businesses to share "important data" with the Chinese government. Only Chinese authorities have the power to decide what type of information is deemed significant or not, making the definition of "important data" legally ambiguous. This means that data processors will have no say on what information will be revealed to or kept confidential from Beijing.
The DSL also lets Chinese officials publish such data in an effort to supposedly protect it.
Should companies be unable to observe the new security regime, they will be fined a maximum of RMB 2 million or approximately S$418,208.40 as of writing. Offending businesses could also face suspension as well as cancellation of their operational and business licence.
The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017 that Chinese companies Alibaba and Tencent have been pushed to help its government track criminal suspects and hush political critics. These firms’ technology has also been used to power tight surveillance on Chinese cities.
In a Foreign Policy article, a former US government official affirmed that China’s spying is large-scale given its support from big businesses.
“Just imagine on any given day, if NSA and CIA are collecting information, say, on the [Chinese military], and we could bring back seven, eight, 10, 15 petabytes of data, give it to Google or Amazon or Microsoft, and say, ‘Hey, condition this on the weekend. We want all these analytics; get it back to us next week.’ That’s what they do. They have Alibaba and they have Baidu. We don’t have that,” said an unidentified US senior intelligence official.
China has a history of silencing journalists. The non-profit organisation Reporters Without Borders stated that the country is the "world's biggest jailer of press freedom defenders". Currently, 115 media professionals are detained in China.
Other journalists receiving the pin have yet to react to the possible security threats the Cloud Pin might have.
Written by Sophia Lopez