Even in the cloud, Japan and China find themselves at odds

No cloud service is an island (unlike the Senkaku/Diaoyu archipelago).
No cloud service is an island (unlike the Senkaku/Diaoyu archipelago).
Image: Reuters/Kyodo
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Shinzo Abe isn’t the only one stirring up Japanese-Chinese tensions.

Japan’s National Information Security Center has asked government ministries to wean themselves off foreign-made typing apps that make it easy to use English-language keyboard to input Japanese characters. These apps are made by Microsoft, Google, and China’s Baidu.

The NISC’s suggestion makes sense. If you are using a free cloud-based service, your data is not secure. This should be self-evident by now. It’s foolish for any government department to use insecure lines of communication for confidential documents. Companies such as China’s Huawei and Lenovo are looked upon with suspicion in the west and, after Edward Snowden’s revelations, American companies can hardly claim to be bathed in milk, either.

Another stick to beat China with

But in Japan, the reports shifted from sensible to scaremongering. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, referring to Baidu, headlined its piece, “Free Chinese software secretly transmitting Japanese users’ data.”

Baidu’s app is used by some 2 million people (link in Japanese). It responded to a request for comment from Tech in Asia, a popular blog, explaining that of course the app connects to servers. It has to in order to work.

This manufactured scandal, which comes on the same day as China’s outrage of Shinzo Abe’s visit to a controversial war memorial, is similar to one about Facebook a couple of weeks ago. A widely-cited piece in Slate used a research paper from Facebook employees to makes the case that “Facebook still knows what you typed—even if you decide not to publish it.” A closer reading of the paper (pdf) would have shown that Facebook knows only that you typed, not what you typed. There is a big difference.

Messaging apps do the same thing. That’s how you know that the person at the other is typing something. Search engines do it, too. That’s how they offer suggestions or bring up instant results. This is the nature of the web. We may not all be comfortable with it, in which case it is perfectly legitimate to not use it. But to call it a conspiracy is silly—or opportunistic.