China’s mass surveillance technology

Have you heard how the Chinese government used drones when they were first trying to limit the spread of the coronavirus?   

One video shows a man working in Wuhan without a mask, when suddenly a voice from the sky says “Why did you come outside without wearing a mask?”  The man seems confused and looks around to locate the voice.  When he spots the drone, he smirks a little.  “Don’t laugh,” the drone says sternly.  “Now get on your cart and go home immediately.  Don’t come outside if not necessary.”  The man looks at the drone again, and starts to drive his cart away, but apparently not quickly enough.  “What are you looking at?” asks the drone operator.  “Go home now.”  Which the man does.

According to a CNN piece a few weeks ago, a variety of mass surveillance techniques have been used in the first few months of trying to stop coronavirus, and “China’s top prosecutor issued a notice warning that anyone… who refuses to accept quarantine or treatment, will be ‘severely punished.’”   

Now I must admit that when it comes to trying to prevent a worldwide pandemic, there’s an argument to be made for doing whatever it takes.  But if I heard voices from the sky telling me what to do, I’d either see a psychiatrist or join the resistance.

My recent post on the social credit system mentioned a few of the ways technology is being used for mass surveillance, but those were only the tip of the iceberg.  Throughout China, there seem to be cameras everywhere.  According to a Comparitech study of the relative number of CCTV cameras in 120 cities around the world:  “Eight out of the top 10 most-surveilled cities are in China.”  (The other two are London and Atlanta).  And it’s only getting worse.  The same study reports that “By 2022, China is projected to have one public CCTV camera for every two people.”

In some cases, these systems are being used to fight crime.  For example, some individuals violate customs laws by illegally buying tax free goods in Hong Kong and then reselling them in mainland China.  This got a lot harder when facial recognition systems were installed at several border check points to compare travelers’ appearances against a database of faces and travel information.  That system now informs custom officials whenever a suspected illegal trader has been flagged.

Can this type of technology be applied when an individual is walking around in a crowd?  You betcha.  Some police in China have been given smart sunglasses that allow them to snap a quick photo of anyone they see, and then instantly compare each face to a database.  In one demonstration of this technology, police in a crowded high speed rail station used this systems to capture suspects accused of crimes ranging from hit and run accidents to human trafficking.

Of course, the basics of facial recognition are not exactly cutting edge technology.  If you use an iPhone, you may have unlocked it this morning by showing your face.  But in China, “Facial recognition… has become a normal part of many people’s lives, used in subways, office buildings, schools and even safari parks to check season-ticket holders.”  Another article provided additional examples, including “a KFC outlet in Hangzhou, China, has rolled out a ‘Smile to Pay’ system [and] universities use it to screen staff and students.” 

There are even facial recognition systems outside some restrooms to prevent people from wasting toilet paper.  Step in front of a camera for 3 seconds, and you will be rewarded with 28 inches of toilet paper on your way in.  But if you need more, you are going to have to wait 9 minutes, because the system knows who you are, and 28 inches is all you’re getting.  (To see how people reacted, watch this video.)    

Facial recognition technology has even been applied in classrooms.  According to a 2018 government press release, a Hangzhou classroom installed “a facial recognition camera that scans the classroom every 30 seconds [and]… records the facial expressions of the students and logs whether they look happy, upset, angry, fearful or disgusted.”  Not to mention whether they are paying attention.

However, this classroom experiment was greeted with a wave of bad publicity.  The negative reaction to this system was too much even for China.  Last September the Ministry of Education issued guidance recommending that in the future “schools seek the opinions of parents, students and teachers before introducing technology.”

So if you are working for a startup that hopes to develop mass surveillance technology for China, keep this in mind:  toilets may be OK, but classrooms are off limits.

Note that as this is written, none of the systems described have been installed throughout the entire country from border to border.  And there is no nationwide big data analysis in progress to integrate all the data from independent computer systems, so that the government can track everywhere you go and everything you’ve done.  So if you are a known toilet paper waster in Beijing, you can probably get away with more waste in Shanghai.

But that doesn’t mean the Chinese aren’t working on combining data from multiple sources.  The New York Times reported one experiment on combining mobile phone and CCTV camera data to increase accuracy at “a dingy apartment complex in Zhengzhou… which hosts cheap hotels and fly-by-night businesses.”  They compared facial data with phone location and “if a face and a phone appeared at the same place and time, the system grew more confident they belonged to the same person.”  Within four days, the system had matched 3,000 phones with their owners’ faces.

So the systems of the future may be far more accurate and complete.  But even with just today’s technology, some mass surveillance systems have been quite effective in helping to suppress dissidents.  Some of China’s most advanced and intrusive mass surveillance systems are being deployed in Xinjiang, a vast territory of mountains and deserts on China’s western border.  The area is home to many ethnic minorities, including about 11 million Muslim Uighurs. 

The Uighur minority has been subjected to a wide variety of harsh policies which will be described in my next post, with the goal of forcing them to abandon traditional Muslim practices and embrace Chinese identity and nationalism. 

Here’s just one example:  A few years ago, mobile phone users in the capital of Xinjiang received a message from the government requiring them to install the “Jing Wang” app on their mobile phones.  The notice came complete with a QR code to simplify downloading the app, and an explanation that the app would “automatically detect terrorist and illegal religious videos, images, e-books and electronic documents.”

One article describing this included a photo of police checking phones with this caption:  “Authorities from Xinjiang are checking to make sure that people are using the official Jing Wang application… If they are caught at a checkpoint and their devices do not have the software, they could be detained for 10 days.”

And if that’s not invasive enough, according to a NY Times opinion piece, “All communication software is banned except WeChat, which grants the police access to users’ calls, texts and other shared content.” 

As an excellent New York Times overview noted:  “By themselves, none of China’s new techniques are beyond the capabilities of the United States or other countries. But together, they could propel China’s spying to a new level, helping its cameras and software become smarter and more sophisticated.” The proliferation of systems like this seems inevitable in an authoritarian state that values security over privacy.

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