The latest evolution in surveillance technology will be used by the People’s Republic of China to predict citizen unrest and criminal activity before it happens, according to The New York Times.
Chinese tech companies have been commissioned to develop platforms that gather and consolidate data on the daily life of individuals, focusing their attention on “not only those with a criminal past but also vulnerable groups, including ethnic minorities, migrant workers and those with a history of mental illness.”
The new surveillance state
After analyzing about 76,000 publicly available government documents ChinaFile reports that procurement of “surveillance-related equipment and services” increased by almost 1,900% from 2010 to 2019.
IPVM reported Saturday, that Hikvision, one of the world’s largest video surveillance companies, was contracted to build a platform to help Chinese police track the real-time location of protesters. These citizens can be followed digitally, and police dispatches can prevent them from traveling if their activity is flagged as suspicious.
The government uses facial recognition with its vast network of cameras to follow the movements of individuals. Using advanced software, police monitor all phone calls and messages, track purchases of everything from groceries to rent, and gather that information into centralized databases.
The efforts to expand monitoring are part of a plan dubbed “one person, one file,” where advanced data techniques can be used with each citizen’s comprehensive profile to isolate patterns of behavior that “(threaten) social stability” per Reuters.
While other ambitious projects like the Social Credit System are slow to develop in the hands of the government due to “fragmented implementation and inconsistent standards,” the cooperation with Chinese tech companies has led to rapid innovation in surveillance. The monitoring initiatives are unique because they “often operate more covertly and act beyond the confines of laws and regulations, in a relatively clear division of labor” allowing for more efficient adoption and use, according to a MERICS report.
COVID-19 contact tracing during the pandemic allowed companies and the government to put their systems to the test, and iron out problems with information sharing. These lessons are now being used in government initiatives like “Golden Shield, Skynet, Safe Cites and Police Clouds, Project Sharp Eyes, and the Integrated Joint-Operations Platform (IJOP) in Xinjiang,” per MERICS.
Xinjiang is the most notable example of the political repression of minority groups, where daily life for millions of Uyghurs, a majority Muslim Turkic ethnic group, is closely monitored, according to the BBC.
Even though the current infrastructure lacks standardization and is hampered by bureaucracy, officials are working to improve on the shortcomings of the nationwide surveillance network. Even with these problems, ChinaFile reports that China is in possession of the “most agile, invasive, and omnipresent surveillance capabilities in the world.”
Surveillance concerns abroad
In 2018, Freedom House reported that China had exported advanced AI surveillance technology to 18 other countries including Azerbaijan, Ecuador, Germany, Venezuela and Pakistan. Authoritarian governments continue to expand their use of this technology every year.
Democracies are also expanding their use of mass surveillance. According to the Human Rights Watch, “an intelligence coalition comprised of the United States and Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, has sought to undermine encryption by pressuring companies to give governments backdoor access to all digital communications.”
The Freedom House reports that “the best way for democracies to stem the rise of digital authoritarianism is to prove that there is a better model for managing the internet.”