Social media accounts belonging to a Canadian man detained in China have shown brief glimmers of life in recent weeks, in what appears to be a digital glimpse into the invasive tactics being employed by those investigating him.
The most recent came Wednesday at 10:19 a.m. China Standard Time, when the messaging app Viber recorded activity on an account belonging to Michael Spavor. Mr. Spavor, a Canadian who ran an organization that brought visitors to North Korea, was detained by Chinese authorities on Dec. 10, days after Canadian police arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei who is the daughter of the tech giant’s founder.
Mr. Spavor has been accused of endangering Chinese national security and denied access to a lawyer. He is being held in a secret location as security services investigate him. Chinese authorities can keep him for six months without any formal charges – although China’s chief prosecutor on Thursday said he had “without a doubt” violated Chinese law.
But in the days after his detention, Facebook and Viber have both recorded moments when Mr. Spavor’s digital presence momentarily re-emerged. His Instagram account has also shown signs of activity, NK News, an American news site that covers North Korea, reported.
On Dec. 19, Tereza Novotna, a researcher who is a Facebook friend of Mr. Spavor, noticed that his Messenger account reported him as active for several hours. She saved a screen capture of the moment.
“I was quite terrified when I saw it,” she said in an interview.
“My first thought was that he must have been somehow forced to give up access to his social media.”
Indeed, there is reason to think those reactivating Mr. Spavor’s online presence are Chinese investigators peering deep into his digital life. Authorities in China typically seize electronics belonging to people they detain and demand passwords to access the digital records they contain.
Interrogators “thoroughly searched everything on our computers,” said Kevin Garratt, a Canadian who was interrogated, arrested and ultimately sentenced to prison in China under circumstances very similar to those surrounding the detention of Mr. Spavor and Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat also seized Dec. 10. Mr. Kovrig, an analyst with International Crisis Group, is also accused of endangering national security. No signs of activity have been spotted on his social-media accounts since his detention.
Mr. Garratt and his wife, Julia Garratt, were taken into custody during extradition proceedings against Su Bin, a Chinese businessman eventually imprisoned for espionage in the United States. Authorities in the U.S. have also sought the extradition of Ms. Meng.
But the Garratts’ experience offers a glimpse into the methods used by Chinese investigators in such cases. Also accused of violating Chinese security laws, they were for months subjected to six hours of daily interrogation, including weekends – from 9 a.m. until noon, and then again from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Many questions related to information discovered in their digital records.
At one point, investigators demanded that Ms. Garratt identify a person named Omid, whose name they had discovered tucked away in a long-ago online chat.
“It’s a code name,” her interrogator told her, according to an account in the couple’s self-published book, Two Tears on the Window.
“Confess your contacts,” she writes that was told. “We know everything!”
Ms. Garratt struggled to recall Omid – until she was shown the chat log and remembered that he was a friend of her nephew and they had chatted briefly about North Korea for a school project. But the interrogators insisted that Omid’s school, Toronto’s King’s Academy “trained children for espionage from a young age,” she wrote.
“They were desperate for proof.”
Indeed, “interrogators and data forensics staff are tasked with finding anything that can be used, or twisted in meaning to be useful,” said Peter Dahlin, the director of Safeguard Defenders, which tracks China’s detention of people during investigations. Mr. Dahlin was himself detained and interrogated in China in 2016, where he had worked as a human-rights advocate.
“Early on, they will often try to establish a general idea of who their victim, in this case Spavor, is. That means looking at where he went to school, his siblings, his work, anything and everything.”
Such information can be useful in building a criminal case. And while China has yet to provide any evidence of wrongdoing, Zhang Jun, China’s prosecutor general, said on Thursday that authorities acted “strictly” according to the law, and have assembled a strong case.
“Without a doubt, these two Canadian citizens in China violated our country’s laws and regulations, and are currently undergoing investigation according to procedure,” he said, according to Reuters.
Canada has called the detention of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor “arbitrary,” and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has demanded their immediate release.