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<nettime> China’s dystopian push to revolutionize surveillance
Felix Stalder on Mon, 18 Sep 2017 11:02:12 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> China’s dystopian push to revolutionize surveillance

[I recently talked to Chinese scholars and activists about this, who
broadly shared the worries expressed in this article, but they were also
aware that theirs was probably a minority position. For most people,
they said, surveillance is not the problem (it's a given). More worrying
for them is the experience of the total breakdown of social bonds and
trust after a generation of breakneck transformation. Against this
background, social credit systems can be seen a way of reestablishing
trust in society. Felix]

China’s dystopian push to revolutionize surveillance

By Maya Wang | August 18 at 10:09 AM


As part of a new multimillion-dollar project in Xinjiang, the Chinese
government is attempting to “build a fortress city with technologies.”
If this sounds Orwellian, that’s because it is. According to the Sina
online news portal, the project is supposed to strengthen the
authorities’ hands against unexpected social unrest. Using “big data”
from various sources, including the railway system and visitors’ systems
in private residential compounds, its ultimate aim is to “predict …
individuals and vehicles posing heightened risks” to public safety.

And this isn’t the only project in China that aims to expand
surveillancewhile denying people privacy rights. Across the country,
local governments are spending billions of dollars implementing
sophisticated technological systems for mass surveillance. The
consequences for human rights are ominous.
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Beijing’s impulse to surveil is certainly not new. But mass migration
and privatization during the transition to a market economy have
undermined the power of older practices that allowed the state to keep
tabs on people, such as the “hukou” residency registration system. To
bolster and broaden surveillance, the Ministry of Public Security turned
to new technologies, launching the Golden Shield Project in 2000. The
project aims to build a nationwide, intelligent digital surveillance
network capable of identifying and locating individuals, as well as
offering the state immediate access to personal records at the push of a

This dystopian project is bearing fruit. China’s pervasive Internet
censorship and its use of countless security cameras in public spaces
are well known. Recent reporting reveals authorities’ aspirations to
enable facial recognition through upgraded cameras, to calculate
citizens’ “social credit” scores based on economic and social status and
to establish a national DNA database that logs genetic code irrespective
of anyone’s connection to a crime.

But we still know little of China’s full range of efforts to
revolutionize surveillance. We have few details about China’s use of
voice and speech recognition. There has not been any investigation into
China’s nationwide “safe city” projects that vow to promote public
safety using technology. We know even less about how China plans to use
big data for crime prediction.

What we do know is that China has no effective privacy protections and
that it often treats peaceful speech as a crime.

It is also worrying that some of these systems are designed to identify
“focus personnel” — a catchall term for both those with a criminal
record and those whom authorities deem threatening or antisocial,
including peaceful critics, political activists, minorities or people
with a drug use record.

The story of Wu Bing may offer a taste of what is to come. Wu is one of
nearly 3 million individuals whose name is logged into a police database
known as the “Online Dynamic Control and Early Warning System for Drug
Addicts.” Wu kicked the habit in 2005, but whenever he uses his ID —
when he checks into a hotel, for example — the police are alerted and
sometimes force him to take a drug test.

What’s worse, the Chinese government is promoting its surveillance model
abroad. It has pushed the concept of “Internet sovereignty” — the idea
that, instead of a free World Wide Web, a country’s rulers should
determine what netizens can say and read. And its efforts are aided by
Chinese companies eager to peddle their wares. In 2014, a Human Rights
Watch report found that Chinese telecom giant ZTE sold technology and
provided training to monitor mobile phones and Internet activity to
Ethiopia’s repressive government. Meanwhile, closed-circuit television
cameras and monitoring systems made by Chinese companies — some
high-definition and equipped with facial and movement recognition powers
— have been sold to countries around the world, including Brazil,
Ecuador, Kenya and Britain.

But we are beginning to see a backlash against Chinese companies with
strong ties to the Chinese government, prompted by security concerns. In
July 2017, Germany became the first European Union nation to tighten
rules on foreign corporate acquisitions; this ensures that Germany
retains control over critical technologies, including artificial
intelligence applications. Others, including the United States and
Britain are mulling similar restrictions.

Yet foreign governments need to take stronger and more systematic
action. They should first understand and review the ways in which the
transfer of technologies used for abusive purposes is taking place. The
United States needs to review and enhance a long-standing ban on
exporting policing and “crime control” equipment to China. The
sanctions, passed in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, have
been largely ineffective in preventing U.S.-based companies from selling
software and hardware for surveillance purposes. That review should
ensure that the list of equipment barred is regularly updated or
supplemented to cover the latest technologies and that the sanctions are
vigorously enforced.

If the Chinese government’s Orwellian drive at home does not alarm the
international community, its willingness to export that approach should.
It’s not just the liberty of people in China at stake — it is the
liberty of people across the globe.

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