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China Ups Surveillance State Ante with Latest Tech

China Ups Surveillance State Ante with Latest Tech

China is cementing its reputation as the modern Soviet-era Russia with unparalleled levels of surveillance and Orwellian social-engineering systems. Already a nation where few citizens can avoid constant surveillance in public spaces, facial-recognition glasses and body cameras have only heightened the sense of paranoia that exudes from the government’s insistence on treating its people like pre-criminals.

Even before the announcement that police would have access to Google-glass like tech that connects to a police database in order to identify alleged, wanted criminals through facial recognition, China had encroached upon a level of citizen-monitoring nobody would be comfortable being subjected to. The nation plans on having over 600 million CCTV cameras installed by 2020, with most of those cameras fully equipped with facial recognition technology. By that time, the eye in the sky will cease to be the stuff of science fiction. It will be an unavoidable reality for Chinese citizens and tourists.

It’s an exponential growth in the scope of surveillance that should be concerning to citizens round the globe. As recently as 2013, news reports marveled at the fact that the Chinese government was in the process of installing 20 million cameras nation-wide. Only seven years later, 30 times that amount will be in constant operation, with the sophistication to track each citizen’s every move in public. While China represents the height of the modern surveillance state, it may serve merely as the exemplar for leaders and nations with similar desire for control of increasing populations.

After all, control is at the root of power, and a desire for power is at the core of nearly every human being, if not all. Dismissing China’s current state of affairs, and the inevitable escalation in surveillance to come, as a contained instance not to be fretted upon would be naïve.

And, once one does thoroughly consider the extent to which China has gone in monitoring and attempting to control its population, it becomes abundantly evident that such a system is to be warded off at all costs.

Consider China’s citizen score, introduced to the world in 2016. The score is based on criteria that is highly personal, and can affect virtually every facet that dictates quality of life, from the ability to get a loan to which schools your child will be admitted to and who will go out with you. As public information, it’s the ultimate tool to shame people into falling into a tidy line based on what the government determines is correct and proper. The language used to justify the system is as cloaked in doublespeak as you may expect.

‘It is the scenario contained in China's ambitious plans to develop a far-reaching social credit system, a plan that the Communist Party hopes will build a culture of “sincerity” and a “harmonious socialist society” where “keeping trust is glorious.”’ (The Independent)

But a citizen score may seem like nothing for those who live in the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang. This province is the epicenter of government intrusion in daily life, as it is not only in crucial geographical position for Chinese foreign affairs, but also contains a relatively large population of a Muslim minority group called Uighurs. Uighurs feel that their presence represents a perceived threat to the Chinese government, and is the underlying reason why Xinjiang has become the face of Chinese surveillance, both in person and via technology in the sky.

The Wall Street Journal documented (both in video and written form) what everyday life in Xinjiang is like for all citizens in late 2017. Twice-a-day frisking, the expectation that you show identification in all public spaces, and police booths stationed only a couple hundred yards apart are some of the most overt indicators of the certifiable police state that Xinjiang has become. Not even your smartphone is off limits to the authorities, who can search it at will for signs that you are using an encrypted app, have committed a crime, or taken pictures that you shouldn’t have. Not even the local pumping station is sacred: ‘To fill up with gas, drivers must first swipe their ID cards and stare into a camera.’ (WSJ)

But one can’t quantify the impact that such authoritarian intrusion in daily life has on innocent people until they see life through a personal perspective.

‘When fruit vendor Parhat Imin swiped his card at a telecommunications office this summer to pay an overdue phone bill, his photo popped up with an “X.” Since then, he says, every scan of his ID card sets off an alarm. He isn’t sure what it signifies, but figures he is on some kind of government watch list because he is a Uighur and has had intermittent run-ins with the police.

He says he is reluctant to travel for fear of being detained. “They blacklisted me,” he says. “I can’t go anywhere.”’ (WSJ)

This personal perspective serves to reinforce the seriousness with which we must regard personal privacy and surveillance ‘for safety’s sake’. Like anything, surveillance is a slippery slope, especially when the global population has let its guard down to the extent that it has. We are so used to training the camera on ourselves that a police officer doing the same through a pair of sunglasses or a body camera may not even make us think twice.

‘Police in China are now sporting glasses equipped with facial recognition devices and they're using them to scan train riders and plane passengers for individuals who may be trying to avoid law enforcement or are using fake IDs.’ (Engadget)

‘Between three and four thousand police officers in China are piloting panoramic body cameras with built-in facial recognition technology, the South China Morning Post reports. The cameras are provided by Beijing-based start-up Nebula Science and Technology, and provide “720 degree” high-definition footage to help police identify suspects and gather video evidence.’ (Biometric Update)

The unsettling reality is that the incorporation of the latest innovation in people-watching by Chinese authorities is no surprise to those who are skeptical of human nature. It’s only the logical stepping stone – certainly not a conclusion – for a nation that has been a police state years in the making. Don’t be foolish enough to think that such systems couldn’t, with time, arrive in a city near you.