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.