Anyone, Anywhere, at Any Time

Finding anyone in three minutes: China’s massive surveillance state. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

A CCTV mounted on a brick wall in 2015. (photo: Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine)

Welcome, Skynet

China’s super-surveillance state approaches one CCTV video camera for every two Chinese citizens.

What Naomi Klein called China’s “All Seeing Eye” way back in 2008, that great prototype of the ultimate high-tech police state, has become in 2019 the most sophisticated tracking and monitoring system in the world.

In 2019, China’s All-Knowing Eye is a much better name for it.

In 2006, a government mandate required that all Internet cafes, restaurants, and other entertainment venues be outfitted with CCTV surveillance and a direct feed to local authorities.

By 2008, China had installed some 200,000 surveillance cameras in Shenzhen alone, where Huawei headquarters are located, disguised as lampposts and other objects. Shenzhen wasn’t alone either; all over China, closed circuits of these CCTV video feeds, province by province, city by city, were being piloted into a single, nationwide network.

It was a program Chinese authorities dubbed “Golden Shield”.

“This is how this Golden Shield will work: Chinese citizens will be watched around the clock through networked CCTV cameras and remote monitoring of computers. They will be listened to on their phone calls, monitored by digital voice-recognition technologies. Their Internet access will be aggressively limited through the country’s notorious system of online controls know as the “Great Firewall.” Their movements will be tracked through national ID cards with scannable computer chips and photos that are instantly uploaded to police databases and linked to their holder’s personal data.”

“This is the most important element of all: Linking all these tools together in a massive, searchable database of names, photos, residency information, work history and biometric data. When Golden Shield is finished, there will be a photo in those databases for everyone person in China: 1.3 billion faces.” — Naomi Klein, China’s All-Seeing Eye, 2008.

Nor has the Chinese government been content to stop with a mere database of faces and data.

In 2015, the city of Beijing announced it had reached a watershed: 100% CCTV coverage. Every corner of China’s capital city is now under surveillance 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In 2017, it was estimated that China had as many as 176 million surveillance cameras in operation. By 2020, China hopes to bring that number up to 626 million. Beijing’s ultimate goal is to be able to find anyone, anywhere, at any time, within three minutes.

They are getting close.

In 2017, in a demonstration for the BBC, a reporter’s face was scanned and flagged in the system; the BBC reporter was picked up by Chinese police within 7 minutes.

Today in China, someone is always watching, and that someone may be an advanced AI learning algorithm.

Fighting Crime with AI

Ostensibly, China’s surveillance system is touted as a crime detection, detergent, and prevention method, which it unquestionably is. Currently, 90% of crimes in China are solved using the high tech surveillance system.

But fighting crime is only the beginning.

Improving Civic Behavior

Minor infractions of a publicly rude but not necessarily criminal nature, like littering, spitting on the street, and jaywalking, are also being tracked by the system.

Infractions are punished by heavy fines, by public naming and shaming, including to employers and potential employers, even jail time.

China’s social credit scoring system, where Chinese citizens are given ratings based on their “trustworthiness” and reputation, puts all that tracked data to use. Good civic behavior improves your score; uncivic behavior hurts it.

This system, to say nothing of the massive surveillance system, makes political dissidents, journalists, and outspoken critics of the government particularly vulnerable to threats and punishment. Even associating with someone who is posting critical comments against the Chinese government can lower your score.

Not sorting your recycling properly is another uncivic behavior that is being closely monitored by the Chinese government, including with smart trash cans able to analyze the contents of your trash and outfitted CCTV.

How far can it go?

A Matter of Public Health

Analyzing the garbage is itself a tried and true surveillance technique that reveals a great deal about the occupants of any given neighborhood or household.

Garbage contains a wealth of information like how much meat a family eats, how much food they waste, what they buy, how much they buy, what they dispose of, whether they dispose of it properly, what medications they take and for what conditions, including those purchased over the counter, for ailments or illnesses they may be trying to hide, like contagious diseases.

This pervasive, intrusive system, which is being further augmented by an army of inanimate smart objects united into a networked Internet of Things, and AI, still represents only the tip of the iceberg. More and more control in the name of preserving public health and social peace is being justified every day.

Not least of which is over 1.3 million Chinese Uighur Muslims currently confined in reeducation camps.

The vast system of cameras capturing every move is only one part of a larger picture; that of integration. Ultimately, Chinese authorities want to be able to use the cameras in conjunction with phones, GPS tracking, advanced facial recognition technology, and the internet, to monitor the activities of every person in China.

Unfortunately for the moral arguments in favor of privacy, that day of ultimate reckoning may have already come for China.

And it might be coming soon to a city near you.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)