Cashless payment is booming, thanks to coronavirus. So is financial surveillance


Jack Parkin, Western Sydney University

A banknote has been sitting in my wallet for six months now. As time ticks on, it burns an ever greater hole in my pocket.

At first I felt uneasy spending it, following COVID-19 warnings to pay more attention to hand hygiene and the surfaces we all touch on a daily basis.

Now I have less and less opportunity to do so. While the World Health Organisation has never advised against using cash, more and more businesses are displaying signs that read “We Only Accept Contactless Payment” next to their registers.

A recent global poll conducted by MasterCard – a company with reason to favour card-based payments – found 82% of its users see contactless payments as cleaner than cash.

Online shopping is booming too. Amazon’s value alone has risen by 570 billion US dollars this year.

But while electronic payment may reduce our exposure to germs, it also shows banks, vendors and payment platforms what we do with our money. Social media is awash with posts condemning the forced use of contactless payment for fear of overseers eyeballing spending. Some people are even boycotting stores that won’t accept cash.

The growth of digital transactions exposes yet another aspect of our personal life to, what the social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff has called, “surveillance capitalism”. Financial data is now a valuable raw material that can be bought, sold and refined in the name of profit.

The decline of cash

When the pandemic began, cash had already been on the decline for years. In Australia, demand for coins fell by more than 50% between 2013 and 2019.

For many people, increasing digitisation is synonymous with progress. It can be seen as a way of leaving the cumbersome, historical artefacts of coins and banknotes behind.

COVID-19 has accelerated this move away from cash. Wariness of microbe-ridden banknotes has seen contactless payment become a spontaneous public health standard.

Because cash is a social material, it moves between us, connecting us both financially and physically. The US Federal Reserve even decided to quarantine dollars returning from Asia earlier this year in an attempt to stop the coronavirus crossing its borders.




Read more:
Depending on who you are, the benefits of a cashless society are greatly overrated


Dropping digital breadcrumbs

One perk of paper money is that it does not leave paper trails. Digital money, however, leaves traces in the databases of banks, vendors and platform owners, while governments look keenly over their shoulders.

Financial journalist Brett Scott calls this a “prison of watchable payments”.

Tax officials love digital transactions because they make it easier to monitor the nation’s economy. Banks and payment platforms are pleased as well: not only do they collect fees and gain the ability to allow or obstruct transactions, they can also profit from the troves of personal data piling up on their servers.

Internally, banks use this data to offer you other bespoke services such as loans and insurance. But information is also aggregated to better understand wider economic trends, and then sold on to third parties.

At the moment, these data metrics are anonymised but that doesn’t guard against retailers using de-anonymising techniques to attach transactions back to your identity.

Data brokers exist for this very reason: building digital profiles and creating a marketplace for them. This allows retailers to target you with tailored advertisements based on your spending. The devices at everyone’s fingertips become a feedback loop of information in which companies analyse what people have bought and then urge them to buy more.




Read more:
Explainer: what is surveillance capitalism and how does it shape our economy?


Can surveillance work on your behalf?

Having records of every transaction can also be useful for individuals. Companies such as Revolut and Monzo offer “spending analytics” services to help customers manage their money by tracking where it goes each month.

But information about a user’s own behaviour never truly belongs to them. And, as the digital economist Nick Srnicek explains, “suppression of privacy is at the heart of the business model”.

Digital payment with (some) privacy

While filling virtual baskets or paying by tapping a card does open up transactions for inspection, there are still ways you can protect your health and your data at the same time.

“Virtual cards” like those provided by privacy.com are one useful tool. These services let users create multiple card numbers for different online purchases that conceal consumption patterns from banks and credit card details from merchants.

Cryptocurrencies might also find a new limelight in the pandemic. Hailed as cash for the internet, the inbuilt privacy mechanisms of Bitcoin, Zcash and Monero could work to mask transactions.

However, finding companies that accept them is challenging, and their privacy capabilities are often overstated for everyday users. This is particularly true when using exchanges and third-party wallet software such as Coinbase.

In brick-and-mortar stores, staying under the radar can be more difficult. Prepaid cards are one option – but you’ll need to buy the card itself with cash if you want to keep your anonymity fully intact. And that takes us back to square one.The Conversation

Jack Parkin, Digital Economist, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep calm, but don’t just carry on: how to deal with China’s mass surveillance of thousands of Australians



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Bruce Baer Arnold, University of Canberra

National security is like sausage-making. We might enjoy the tasty product, but want to look away from the manufacturing.

Recent news that Chinese company Zhenhua Data is profiling more than 35,000 Australians isn’t a surprise to people with an interest in privacy, security and social networks. We need to think critically about this, knowing we can do something to prevent it from happening again.

Reports indicate Zhenhua provides services to the Chinese government. It may also provide services to businesses in China and overseas.

The company operates under Chinese law and doesn’t appear to have a presence in Australia. That means we can’t shut it down or penalise it for a breach of our law. Also, Beijing is unlikely to respond to expressions of outrage from Australia or condemnation by our government – especially amid recent sabre-rattling.




Read more:
Journalists have become diplomatic pawns in China’s relations with the West, setting a worrying precedent


Zhenhua is reported to have data on more than 35,000 Australians – a list saturated by political leaders and prominent figures. Names, birthdays, addresses, marital status, photographs, political associations, relatives and social media account details are among the information extracted.

It seems Zhenhua has data on a wide range of Australians, including public figures such as Victorian supreme court judge Anthony Cavanough, Australia’s former ambassador to China Geoff Raby, former NSW premier and federal foreign affairs minister Bob Carr, tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes and singer Natalie Imbruglia.

It’s not clear how individuals are being targeted. The profiling might be systematic. It might instead be conducted on the basis of a specific industry, academic discipline, public prominence or perceived political influence.

It’s unlikely Zhenhua profiles random members of the public. That means there’s no reason for average citizens without a China connection to be worried.

Still, details around the intelligence gathering elude us, so best practise for the public is to maintain as much online privacy as possible, whenever possible.

Overall, we don’t know much about Zhenhua’s goals. And what we do know came from a leak to a US academic who sensibly fled China in 2018, fearing for his safety.

Pervasive surveillance is the norm

Pervasive surveillance is now a standard feature of all major governments, which often rely on surveillance-for-profit companies. Governments in the West buy services from big data analytic companies such as Palantir.

Australia’s government gathers information outside our borders, too. Take the bugging of the Timor-Leste government, a supposed friend rather than enemy.

How sophisticated is the plot?

Revelations about Zhenhua have referred to the use of artificial intelligence and the “mosaic” method of intelligence gathering. But this is probably less exciting than it sounds.

Reports indicate much of the data was extracted from online open sources. Access to much of this would have simply involved using algorithms to aggregate targets’ names, dates, qualifications and work history data found on publicly available sites.

The algorithms then help put the individual pieces of the “mosaic” together and fill in the holes on the basis of each individual’s relationship with others, such as their as peers, colleagues or partners.

Some of the data for the mosaic may come from hacking or be gathered directly by the profiler. According to the ABC, some data that landed in Zhenhua’s lap was taken from the dark web.

One seller might have spent years copying data from university networks. For example, last year the Australian National University acknowledged major personal data breaches had taken place, potentially extending back 19 years.

This year there was also the unauthorised (and avoidable) access by cybercriminals to NSW government data on 200,000 people.

While it may be confronting to know a foreign state is compiling information on Australian citizens, it should be comforting to learn sharing this information can be avoided – if you’re careful.

What’s going on in the black box?

One big question is what Zhenhua’s customers in China’s political and business spheres might do with the data they’ve compiled on Australian citizens. Frankly, we don’t know. National security is often a black box and we are unlikely ever to get verifiable details.

Apart from distaste at being profiled, we might say being watched is no big deal, especially given many of those on the list are already public figures. Simply having an AI-assisted “Who’s Who” of prominent Australians isn’t necessarily frightening.

However, it is of concern if the information collected is being used for disinformation, such as through any means intended to erode trust in political processes, or subvert elections.

For instance, a report published in June by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute detailed how Chinese-speaking people in Australia were being targeted by a “persistent, large-scale influence campaign linked to Chinese state actors”.

Illustration of surveillance camera with Chinese flag draped over.
In June, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced China was supposedly behind a major state-based attack against several of Australia’s sectors, including all levels of government.
Shutterstock

Deep fake videos are another form of subversion of increasing concern to governments and academics, particularly in the US.




Read more:
Deepfake videos could destroy trust in society – here’s how to restore it


Can we fix this?

We can’t make Zhenhua and its competitors disappear. Governments think they are too useful.

Making everything visible to state surveillance is now the ambition of many law enforcement bodies and all intelligence agencies. It’s akin to Google and its competitors wanting to know (and sell) everything about us, without regard for privacy as a human right.

We can, however, build resilience.

One way is to require government agencies and businesses to safeguard their databases. That hasn’t been the case with the NSW government, Commonwealth governments, Facebook, dating services and major hospitals.

In Australia, we need to adopt recommendations by law reform inquiries and establish a national right to privacy. The associated privacy tort would incentivise data custodians and also encourage the public to avoid oversharing online.

In doing so, we might be better placed to condemn both China and other nations participating in unethical intelligence gathering, while properly acknowledging our own wrongdoings in Timor-Leste.The Conversation

Bruce Baer Arnold, Assistant Professor, School of Law, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Melbourne is using pop-up police spy stations to find people breaking COVID rules – what does the law say?


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Rick Sarre, University of South Australia

CCTV cameras mounted on vans have recently been seen in public parks around Melbourne, ostensibly to nab anyone breaking lockdown rules. They are part of a joint initiative between several Melbourne councils, Victoria Police and the Commonwealth government.

Coming on the back of Victorian police arresting and charging a number of people for inciting others to break bans on public gatherings by protesting in the streets, there is likely to be widespread resentment to the presence of these mobile surveillance units.

Many people are already claiming the Victorian government has once again over-stepped the mark in its aggressive approach to suppressing COVID-19.

These mobile units are not new, though. They were introduced in 2018 to help combat crime. They are not cheap, either. The cost to purchase and operate four of the units has been estimated at $3.6 million.

But what are the laws around public surveillance of people going about their daily business or recreational activities outdoors?

Let me tackle this question by posing four related questions:

  • are the cameras legal?

  • are such surveillance tools effective?

  • are these measures acceptable in a vibrant democracy?

  • what protections should be put in place?




Read more:
Police and governments may increasingly adopt surveillance technologies in response to coronavirus fears


Are the cameras legal?

It needs to be stated at the outset the Constitution does not include any specific rights related to privacy. And the High Court suggested two decades ago that privacy was unlikely to be protected under common law.

The Victorian Charter of Human Rights, however, contains a provision that states people have the right not to have their

privacy unlawfully or arbitrarily interfered with.

But a lawfully installed camera designed to deter offending would not, on its face, defy the terms of the charter.

International law, too, provides some privacy protections. In 1991, Australia signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states

no one should be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy.

However, Australian parliaments have introduced few laws to enshrine these protections. The legislation that has been enacted has largely been limited to curtailing the use of privately monitored listening and surveillance devices and preventing governments and big business from sharing citizens’ private information.

The Australian Law Reform Commission has issued clarion calls to extend these protections in recent years, but these efforts continue to gather dust.




Read more:
Lockdown returns: how far can coronavirus measures go before they infringe on human rights?


So, it should not be surprising that mobile CCTV cameras driven to and stationed in public places are perfectly legal.

Moreover, so-called “unmanned airborne vehicles” (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, are regularly deployed by police for surveillance purposes, too.

Both of these surveillance tools are backed by regulatory force at all three levels of government.

Police have been patrolling parks for weeks to ensure compliance with the Stage 4 lockdown regulations.
ERIK ANDERSON/AP

Are these surveillance tools effective?

Proponents of these mobile surveillance units argue the perceived risks to privacy and heavy investment are worth it, given the social disorder they prevent and the help they provide police in solving crimes.

However, there is much research now that casts doubt on this assumption.

In one study in 2009, for instance, CCTV cameras were only found to reduce crime by 16% overall (and by only 7% in city and town centres and public housing communities).

The efficacy of these surveillance units in a health emergency has yet to be proven. The cameras would seem to be most useful in providing police with information regarding who is using the parks, and perhaps providing something of a deterrent to those who might consider breaching lockdown restrictions, but not much more.

Are these measures acceptable?

Yes and no. On the one hand, there is no doubt people want the coronavirus restrictions to end. And if these units deter people from breaking lockdown rules, and this, in turn, helps bring the new case numbers down more quickly, people may accept the intrusion in their lives.

On the other hand, some are understandably alarmed at the increasing use of surveillance tools by authorities — dubbed “uberveillance” by sociologists.




Read more:
Pandemic policing needs to be done with the public’s trust, not confusion


Even advocates for civil liberties appear ambivalent about the curtailment of some basic rights during the pandemic.

Liberty Victoria President Julian Burnside, who has been a fierce defender of privacy rights, surprised many by telling The Age,

It all sounds pretty sensible to me. … We are in a war against the coronavirus, and when you’re in a war with anything, restrictions on your otherwise normal liberties are justifiable.

Liberty Victoria quickly sought to distance itself from the comments.

What protections should be put in place?

There is no doubt parliaments are the most appropriate bodies to determine the extent to which individuals can be subjected to lawful public surveillance.

Indeed, former High Court judge Michael Kirby argues the legislative arm of government needs to step up to the task of scrutinising emergency powers with more vigour.

Otherwise it simply becomes a tame servant of the executive, which is a common weakness of parliamentary democracies of the Westminster system.

But parliaments will only respond if citizens demand this of them, and there are very few signs of that at the moment.

In the meantime, there are a number of legal tweaks that should be undertaken to ensure the government’s spying on the public domain is appropriately measured:

  1. we need to ensure the images and other data that are collected by surveillance units are stored appropriately and discarded quickly when no longer needed

  2. we need to be able to hold police and other surveillance operators to account for any excesses in the manner in which images are gathered and shared

  3. there needs to be a new legal remedy in the event there is a serious invasion of privacy by the inappropriate use or disclosure of images collected by surveillance devices.

True, we have the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner constantly reminding governments of the concerns associated with threats to privacy.

But without civic push-back, little will change. Parliamentarians are unlikely to limit the powers of the executive to allow mobile surveillance units to be parked in public places unless it becomes politically unpopular. One can but wonder when this tipping point may be reached.The Conversation

Rick Sarre, Emeritus Professor of Law and Criminal Justice, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You may be sick of worrying about online privacy, but ‘surveillance apathy’ is also a problem



File 20171107 1032 f7pvxc.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Do you care if your data is being used by third parties?
from www.shutterstock.com

Siobhan Lyons, Macquarie University

We all seem worried about privacy. Though it’s not only privacy itself we should be concerned about: it’s also our attitudes towards privacy that are important.

When we stop caring about our digital privacy, we witness surveillance apathy.

And it’s something that may be particularly significant for marginalised communities, who feel they hold no power to navigate or negotiate fair use of digital technologies.


Read more: Yes, your doctor might google you


In the wake of the NSA leaks in 2013 led by Edward Snowden, we are more aware of the machinations of online companies such as Facebook and Google. Yet research shows some of us are apathetic when it comes to online surveillance.

Privacy and surveillance

Attitudes to privacy and surveillance in Australia are complex.

According to a major 2017 privacy survey, around 70% of us are more concerned about privacy than we were five years ago.

Snapshot of Australian community attitudes to privacy 2017.
Office of the Australian Information Commissioner

And yet we still increasingly embrace online activities. A 2017 report on social media conducted by search marketing firm Sensis showed that almost 80% of internet users in Australia now have a social media profile, an increase of around ten points from 2016. The data also showed that Australians are on their accounts more frequently than ever before.

Also, most Australians appear not to be concerned about recently proposed implementation of facial recognition technology. Only around one in three (32% of 1,486) respondents to a Roy Morgan study expressed worries about having their faces available on a mass database.

A recent ANU poll revealed a similar sentiment, with recent data retention laws supported by two thirds of Australians.

So while we’re aware of the issues with surveillance, we aren’t necessarily doing anything about it, or we’re prepared to make compromises when we perceive our safety is at stake.

Across the world, attitudes to surveillance vary. Around half of Americans polled in 2013 found mass surveillance acceptable. France, Britain and the Philippines appeared more tolerant of mass surveillance compared to Sweden, Spain, and Germany, according to 2015 Amnesty International data.


Read more: Police want to read encrypted messages, but they already have significant power to access our data


Apathy and marginalisation

In 2015, philosopher Slavoj Žižek proclaimed that he did not care about surveillance (admittedly though suggesting that “perhaps here I preach arrogance”).

This position cannot be assumed by all members of society. Australian academic Kate Crawford argues the impact of data mining and surveillance is more significant for marginalised communities, including people of different races, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds. American academics Shoshana Magnet and Kelley Gates agree, writing:

[…] new surveillance technologies are regularly tested on marginalised communities that are unable to resist their intrusion.

A 2015 White House report found that big data can be used to perpetuate price discrimination among people of different backgrounds. It showed how data surveillance “could be used to hide more explicit forms of discrimination”.


Read more: Witch-hunts and surveillance: the hidden lives of queer people in the military


According to Ira Rubinstein, a senior fellow at New York University’s Information Law Institute, ignorance and cynicism are often behind surveillance apathy. Users are either ignorant of the complex infrastructure of surveillance, or they believe they are simply unable to avoid it.

As the White House report stated, consumers “have very little knowledge” about how data is used in conjunction with differential pricing.

So in contrast to the oppressive panopticon (a circular prison with a central watchtower) as envisioned by philosopher Jeremy Bentham, we have what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls the “crytopticon”. The crytopticon is “not supposed to be intrusive or obvious. Its scale, its ubiquity, even its very existence, are supposed to go unnoticed”.

But Melanie Taylor, lead artist of the computer game Orwell (which puts players in the role of surveillance) noted that many simply remain indifferent despite heightened awareness:

That’s the really scary part: that Snowden revealed all this, and maybe nobody really cared.

The Facebook trap

Surveillance apathy can be linked to people’s dependence on “the system”. As one of my media students pointed out, no matter how much awareness users have regarding their social media surveillance, invariably people will continue using these platforms. This is because they are convenient, practical, and “we are creatures of habit”.

Are you prepared to give up the red social notifications from Facebook?
nevodka/shutterstock

As University of Melbourne scholar Suelette Dreyfus noted in a Four Corners report on Facebook:

Facebook has very cleverly figured out how to wrap itself around our lives. It’s the family photo album. It’s your messaging to your friends. It’s your daily diary. It’s your contact list.

This, along with the complex algorithms Facebook and Google use to collect and use data to produce “filter bubbles” or “you loops” is another issue.

Protecting privacy

While some people are attempting to delete themselves from the network, others have come up with ways to avoid being tracked online.

Search engines such as DuckDuckGo or Tor Browser allow users to browse without being tracked. Lightbeam, meanwhile, allows users to see how their information is being tracked by third party companies. And MIT devised a system to show people the metadata of their emails, called Immersion.

The ConversationSurveillance apathy is more disconcerting than surveillance itself. Our very attitudes about privacy will inform the structure of surveillance itself, so caring about it is paramount.

Siobhan Lyons, Scholar in Media and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Through a PRISM darkly: Tracking the ongoing NSA surveillance story


Gigaom

It was a relatively quiet week for internet news until Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald dropped a bombshell on Thursday, with a story that showed the National Security Agency was collecting data from Verizon thanks to a secret court order. But that was just the beginning: the Washington Post later revealed an even broader program of surveillance code-named PRISM, which involved data collection from the web’s largest players — including Google (s goog), Facebook (s fb) and Apple (s aapl) — and then the Wall Street Journal said data is also being gathered from ISPs and credit-card companies.

This story is moving so quickly that it is hard to keep a handle on all of the developments, not to mention trying to follow the denials and non-denials from those who are allegedly involved, and the threads that tie this particular story to the long and sordid history of the U.S. government’s…

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China Keeps Church Leaders from Public Worship Attempt


Police put pastors under house arrest over weekend, before detaining at least 160 on Sunday.

DUBLIN, April 11 (CDN) — Police in China held “about two dozen” pastors and elders of Beijing’s Shouwang Church under house arrest or at police stations over the weekend to keep them from attending a Sunday worship service in a public location, according to Bob Fu of the China Aid Association.

Three top leaders of the church remain in jail and several others are under strict surveillance after  hundreds of Chinese police yesterday cordoned off the walkway to a third-floor outdoor meeting area adjacent to a property purchased by the church in Haidian district, Beijing, and arrested at least 160 members of the 1,000-strong church as they tried to assemble.

The church members were bundled into waiting vans and buses to prevent them from meeting as planned in the public space, Reuters and The Associated Press (AP) reported, and most had been released by today.

Church leaders claimed officials had pressured their landlords, forcing them out of both rented and purchased locations and leaving them no choice but to worship in the open.

“The government cornered them into making this decision,” Fu said, adding that the church had initially tried to register with the government. “They waited for two years, and when the government still denied them registration, they tried to keep a low profile before finally deciding to buy the Daheng New Epoch Technology building.”

Shouwang is a very unique church, he said.

“Most members are well-educated, and they include China’s top religious scholars and even former government officials, which may be a factor in the government’s response to them,” he said.

As one of the largest house churches in Beijing, Shouwang is unique in insisting on meeting together rather than splitting the congregation into smaller groups meeting in several locations, Fu said. Zion church, for example, may have more members than Shouwang, but members meet in smaller groups across the city.

“This is based on the founding fathers’ vision for Shouwang Church to be a ‘city on a hill,’” as stated in the Bible in Matthew chapter five, Fu explained. “So they’ve made a conscious decision not to go back to the small-group model. Either the government gives them the keys to their building or gives them written permission to worship in another location, or they will continue meeting in the open.”

Police arrested anyone who showed up to take part in the service, AP reported.

 

‘Most Basic Necessity’

Church leaders last week issued a statement to the congregation explaining their decision to meet outdoors.

“It may not be the best decision, but at this time it is an inevitable one,” the statement said, before reminding church members that the landlord of their premises at the time, the Old Story Club restaurant, had come under government pressure and repeatedly asked them to leave, while the previous owners of the Daheng New Epoch Technology building, purchased a year ago by the church for 27.5 million RMB (US$4.2 million), had refused to hand over the keys. (See, “Church in China to Risk Worshipping in Park,” April 7.)

The church had already met outdoors twice in November 2009 before officials gave tacit consent to move to the Old Story Club restaurant. Officials, however, again prevented Shouwang Church from meeting in May and August of last year.

Fu said it was common for government officials across China to pressure landlords into revoking leases for house church groups.

“For example, right now I know of at least two churches that were made ‘homeless’ in Guangzhou this week, including one church with at least 200 members,” he said.

Shouwang’s statement pointed to Article 36 of China’s Constitution, which grants every citizen freedom to worship, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by China, which states that every citizen has the right to observe his religion or belief “either alone or in community with others and in public or private.”

For this reason the church planned to meet outdoors until officials granted legal, written permission to worship in an approved location – preferably at the building purchased by the church.

The document also advised church members not to resist if they were held under house arrest or arrested at the Sunday venue.

“Objectively speaking, our outdoor worship must deliver this message to the various departments of our government: attending Sunday worship is the most basic necessity for Christians in their life of faith,” the statement concluded.

The number of Protestant house church Christians in China is estimated at between 45 and 60 million, according to Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute, with a further 18 to 30 million people attending government-approved churches.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Chinese Rights Lawyer Gao Zhisheng Missing Again


Two weeks after release, Christian vanishes while in police custody.

DUBLIN, May 7 (CDN) — Gao Zhisheng, a Christian human rights lawyer released by Chinese officials on April 6 and missing again since April 20, is “definitely in the hands of Chinese security forces,” Bob Fu of the China Aid Association (CAA) told Compass.

“We’ve heard the reports and we’re investigating this closely,” Fu said. “Right now nobody has been able to locate him. The Chinese security forces need to come up with an explanation.”

Gao, initially seized from his home in Shaanxi Province on Feb. 4, 2009 and held incommunicado by security officials for 13 months, was permitted to phone family members and colleagues in late March before officials finally returned him to his Beijing apartment on April 6.

In a press conference held in a Beijing teahouse the day after his return, Gao said he wanted to be reunited with his family, who fled to the United States in January 2009, and he claimed he no longer had the strength to continue his legal work. He also said he could not comment on the treatment he received while in captivity.

Gao also told a reporter from the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that he expected to travel to Urumqi within days of his release to visit his in-laws.

Witnesses saw Gao leaving his apartment sometime between April 9 and 12 and getting into a vehicle parked outside his building, SCMP reported on April 30. Gao’s father-in-law reportedly confirmed that Gao arrived at his home with an escort of four police officers but spent just one night there before police took him away again.

Gao phoned his father-in-law shortly before he was due to board a flight back to Beijing on April 20. He promised to call again after returning home but failed to do so, according to the SCMP report.

Fu said he believes that international pressure forced authorities to allow Gao a brief re-appearance to prove that he was alive before officials seized him again to prevent information leaking out about his experiences over the past year.

During a previous detention in 2007, Gao’s captors brutally tortured him and threatened him with death if he spoke about his treatment. Gao later described the torture in an open letter published by CAA in 2009.

Gao came to the attention of authorities early last decade when he began to investigate the persecution of house church Christians and Falun Gong members. In 2005 he wrote a series of open letters to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao accusing the government of torturing Falun Gong members.

When the letters appeared, authorities revoked Gao’s law license and shut down his law firm, sources told CAA.

He was given a suspended three-year jail sentence in December 2006, following a confession that Gao later claimed was made under extreme duress, including torture and threats against his wife and children. Gao was then confined to his Beijing apartment under constant surveillance – forbidden to leave his home, use his phone or computer or otherwise communicate with the outside world, according to a report by The New York Times.

A self-taught lawyer and a Communist Party member until 2005, Gao was once recognized by the Ministry of Justice as one of the mainland’s top 10 lawyers for his pro bono work on human rights cases, according to SCMP.

Report from Compass Direct News