PRC Authorities Allowed to Secretly Seize Social Media Data for Criminal Evidence

PRC Authorities Allowed to Secretly Seize Social Media Data for Criminal Evidence
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

Big Brother: A new law in China allows law enforcement officials to seize 'digital data' for evidence in criminal cases. Opponents say the law is another serious threat to privacy and free speech.

A new law in China will allow certain authorities to seize personal e-mails, instant messages, Weibo friend and contact lists and other “digital data” as evidence in criminal investigations.

The Supreme People’s Court and The Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China on Sept. 20 announced that the new rule for collecting evidence in criminal cases will come into force on Oct. 1. The authorities that can request the information are courts, investigators, prosecutors and public security agencies.

The “digital data” to which access can be requested by those authorities include:

  1. Posts published on any Internet platform;
  2. Messages sent through any Internet service, such as text messages, e-mails and instant messages;
  3. User registration and identification information, electronic transaction information, photos, videos and audio.

The act says, “The collecting and retrieving process must be kept secret to prevent national and business secrets or personal information being leaked,” and the information “could also be temporarily frozen if it is too large to be collected or has the danger of being tampered with or lost,” the state-run China Daily reported .

Law enforcement officials can also “seize electronic data storage devices to prevent possible revision or deletion,” SINA English reported.

Some believe the controversial law could help reduce the number of rumors, scams and harassment spreading online. Others say it is a serious invasion of personal privacy and a threat to free speech.

“I don’t believe that my privacy is still protected as long as authorities don’t ‘leak’ my friend list after reading it,” says a netizen. “This law deprives citizens of their wish to have their privacy protected.”

An op-ed in the Chinese publication Legal Daily says, “When a criminal investigation is in conflict with personal privacy rights, personal rights should relinquish.” However, it also says the law should be refined to prevent personal information being leaked when authorities collect or seize digital data.

An article in the Shenzhen Evening newspaper says that Weibo friend lists are “private domains” and should be protected by the law. It says that while most people will be willing to cooperate with investigations, some are worried that officials will use the law as an excuse to forcibly obtain friend lists.

“It is the obligation of public security departments to protect citizens’ privacy from being invaded,” it says.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole