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State of surveillance

The growth of surveillance technology is enabling the Chinese government’s rapid transformation into Big Brother

State of surveillance

Monitors display facial recognition software in use at an artificial intelligence company in Beijing. (Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times/Redux)

At a music concert in China’s Jiangxi province last April, Chinese officials located and arrested a man wanted for “economic crimes.” Surveillance cameras with facial recognition technology had scanned the faces of 60,000 concertgoers and pinpointed the suspect.

In Hangzhou, a school installed cameras inside its classrooms to record students’ facial expressions during class. The cameras monitored who was paying attention, who walked into class late, and what the teacher was teaching.

At a crosswalk in the city of Xiangyang in Hubei province, a giant screen displays the photos, names, and government ID numbers of jaywalkers—a measure meant to shame them for breaking the rules.

And in Xinjiang region, home to 11 million Muslim Uighurs, local authorities collected DNA samples, fingerprints, and blood types of everyone between the ages of 12 and 65. The collection occurred through a mandatory government medical checkup called “Physicals for All.”

The Chinese government is amassing huge amounts of data on its 1.4 billion citizens. With unfettered access to public and private information, the nation’s authoritarian regime is developing an unprecedented, high-tech surveillance state, using data to determine each citizen’s “trustworthiness” and to exact real-world punishments. The ultimate goals: to prevent threats to government power and to incentivize good behavior in a morally unmoored society.

As Americans debate the privacy issues surrounding data collection by Facebook and Google, Chinese tech companies are steamrolling ahead, perfecting algorithms and using government subsidies to design ever more advanced surveillance technology.

China’s ambitions currently outstrip its capabilities, but projects in cities, schools, and corporations suggest a dismal future for a land where human rights lawyers, house church pastors, and Uighurs—or anyone whose ideas conflict with Communist Party goals—are monitored and banned from travel.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

A teacher uses a machine that employs both fingerprint and facial recognition technology to check the identification of a student before an exam in Handan in China’s Hebei province. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

SPYING ON CITIZENS IS NOTHING NEW IN COMMUNIST CHINA. Under Mao’s reign, residents were required to rat out their “rightist” neighbors. Today, technology has made surveillance easier and more comprehensive. An estimated 170 million surveillance cameras now cover China, and that number is expected to increase to 626 million by 2020, according to IHS Markit.

In 2005, China began building a nationwide surveillance system called “Skynet” (that’s also the name of the computer system in the Terminator films that attempts to destroy mankind). The country plans to monitor 100 percent of its public areas and industries by 2020. In 2015, the government launched the “Sharp Eyes” project, which allows officials and even citizens to monitor their neighborhood through surveillance camera feeds viewed on their cell phones and TV sets. If someone sees suspicious behavior, he would then alert the police. Based on the Mao-era slogan “The people have sharp eyes,” the project has been rolled out in 50 rural towns so far.

A key part of Skynet is the use of facial recognition technology to identify individuals captured on camera. Facial recognition software works by mapping the features of your face—for instance, calculating the distance between your eyes—then comparing them to a database of known faces. The algorithms behind the technology improve as the database increases in size.

In China, once authorities identify a face, it is connected to a name and government-issued ID number, along with information about the person: Does he or she have a criminal record? Hold any views contrary to the Communist Party? Have any relatives living in politically sensitive regions? Attend an unsanctioned house church?

“[China has] adopted the most pervasive surveillance system in the world, and it not only uses new tech to surveil but to link people to their police record, their social information, their name, and their identity number,” said James Andrew Lewis, a technology expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “It’s the combination of big data, facial recognition, and pervasive surveillance that’s made it the most intrusive thing that anyone has ever seen.”

On a trip to Beijing in May, Lewis saw a demonstration firsthand. A monitor displayed the live feed of an intersection, and each time a person walked by, a little box would pop up on the screen with the pedestrian’s name, ID number, and other pertinent information.

The difference between Chinese surveillance and Western-style surveillance is that in the United States, officials would only collect your information if you committed a crime. In China, every citizen has his own record, Lewis said: “When [the system is] fully deployed, every aspect of your public life will be recorded by the government.”

Chinese citizens rely heavily on their cell phones for everyday activities from banking to e-commerce to ride-sharing. More than 1 billion use the WeChat app to send messages, all of which are accessible to the government. This digital trail can reveal personal tidbits: a favorite dish at the noodle shop, a newly ordered book, Saturday night plans with friends, or usual routes around town.

With data on a person’s every movement, artificial intelligence can trace patterns, map relationships, and note deviations. For house church leaders, this makes it difficult to organize, secretly hold services, or inform outsiders when persecution occurs, according to Dean Cheng, an expert on China at the Heritage Foundation.

Xinjiang is the testing site for surveillance: The Chinese government views the region’s Uighur population as a threat and has arbitrarily thrown more than 1 million Uighurs into re-education camps. Beyond biometrics collection, Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo has blanketed the region with surveillance cameras, convenience police stations, and security checkpoints where IDs are scanned. Robotic birds outfitted with surveillance cameras fly overhead, mimicking a bird’s natural movements.

Police in Xinjiang use devices that can extract information from cell phones, including contact lists, photos, videos, emails, web browser history, and downloads of banned apps. Residents have to install GPS tracking devices in their vehicles, and those who refuse are not allowed to fill their tanks up with gas. Local authorities even set up facial recognition systems that would alert them when targets ventured more than about 1,000 feet beyond their home or workplace.

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Facial recognition equipment and a screen are installed at an intersection to shame jaywalkers in Xiangyang, in China’s Hubei province. (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

ONE ASPECT OF CHINESE SURVEILLANCE attracting a lot of attention is its social credit system, which China hopes will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.” China’s State Council unveiled the project in 2014, and currently 30 cities and eight private companies are testing it.

For example, in Rongcheng city in Shandong province, officials award scores both to individuals and to companies based on their contribution (or detriment) to society, according to Foreign Policy. Give to charity or win an award and your score increases. Get a traffic ticket and your score drops. Those with high scores get discounts on winter heating bills or better terms for bank loans.

China’s Supreme People’s Court has its own blacklist of “untrustworthy” people who have failed to follow court orders and repay debts. Currently, there are 10 million people on this list, barred from making luxury purchases (including buying airplane or high-speed rail tickets or booking rooms at four- and five-star hotels) or from sending children to expensive private schools. But even after one’s debt is paid off, there’s still no guarantee he or she will be taken off the list.

Different city governments, businesses, neighborhoods, and online payment providers in China will likely create their own social credit systems. Foreign Policy noted that a neighborhood in Rongcheng has created its own microsystem for the 5,100 families living in the community. Residents added penalties for abusing family members, defaming others online, and illegally spreading religion.

The best example of a commercial social credit system is Sesame Credit, established by Alibaba’s Ant Financial. Users of Alipay can voluntarily opt in to Sesame Credit, which is similar to the FICO credit score that helps banks determine whether someone is likely to pay off his loans in time. Yet rather than just looking at credit history, Sesame Credit goes further to examine the user’s personal information, behavioral habits, and social networks.

It’s unclear exactly what makes up the score, but the Shanghai-based news website The Paper noted that moving frequently or having friends with low credit scores can lower your own score. Ant Financial says that charity donations can increase a person’s score, as can certain spending habits. “Someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person, and someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility,” Sesame Credit technology director Li Yingyun told Caixin Media.

Some users pointed out that the way to increase a score is to be a more loyal Alibaba customer: Sesame uses data from Alipay, purchases and reviews on e-commerce sites (Chinese spent more than $1 trillion on online purchases in 2017), ride-sharing apps, and restaurants. To attract users, the system offers lots of rewards (discounts, waived hotel deposits) and few punishments. However, it can also access the Supreme People’s Court’s blacklist and information from government bureaus to determine a score.

Cheng said that some Chinese men with high social credit scores post their score on their dating profiles, hoping to attract more women. Currently, there are 33.5 million more men than women in China, making competition tough.

The intent of Chinese scoring schemes is to cause people to conform their behavior to the Communist Party’s wishes, Cheng noted: “The reality is that neither censors or police can be everywhere at the same time, but if you knew watching inappropriate programming, speeding, and engaging in political discussions of improper topics is going to cost you on your social credit score, are you going to do that?’

BUT CAN THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT actually pull this off? The New York Times found that the monitor in Xiangyang was displaying jaywalkers six days after their offense, and officers had to manually look through the footage to match identities. Facial recognition glasses worn by some officials at train stations can match faces only if the person stands still for a few seconds, and so are typically used only to ensure no one is entering with fake credentials. The vice president of Megvii, which sells facial recognition software to police, told Business Insider that the company’s recognition technology can only match faces to 1,000 people at a time and can’t run 24/7.

Still, the technology is constantly improving, and China clearly doesn’t mind spending money on surveillance development—it has already spent $6.4 billion on it since 2016. With the help of government subsidies and lax privacy laws, Chinese tech startups are on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence technology. And in areas where China lags behind, the country uses commercial espionage to steal the technology from American companies, said Lewis from CSIS.

One tech startup, Watrix, is developing gait recognition technology, which uses the body’s movement to identify people. Huang Yongzhen, the company’s CEO, told the Associated Press the software can identify a person 165 feet away even if his back is turned or his face is covered. Currently the system doesn’t work in real time—video must be fed through a program, and it takes 10 minutes to scan an hour of video—yet Watrix recently raised $14.5 million to develop the technology.

China has begun to export its surveillance technology to other authoritarian governments as well. Guangzhou-based startup CloudWalk Technology has signed a deal to provide facial recognition services for the government of Zimbabwe. By capturing African faces, CloudWalk will also improve its technology in identifying people of different races. China has also helped the government of Ecuador set up a network of cameras to monitor and identify its citizens. Police in Malaysia are using facial recognition glasses developed by Shanghai startup Yitu.

Lewis noted that as Chinese citizens travel abroad, they encounter other forms of government and may return home with less favorable views of the communist system. In the Chinese Communist Party’s hands, surveillance technology is a tool for keeping in check anyone with dissenting views.

“The end goal is to keep the [Communist] Party in power,” Lewis said. “The party wants to get ahead of any political discontent, and that’s why they’re deploying this.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.