Who is Watching You? Mass Surveillance in China

Throughout history, espionage has been used by monarchies and governments for the preservation and security of their reign (Lerner & Lerner, 2004). They use espionage to learn about enemy countries and gather information on their own population, such as loyalty or the general sentiment of the people (Laidler, 2008). Historic use of espionage has paved the way for mass surveillance in modern society, with the rise of technological advances making surveillance easier and more wide-spread across populations. Mass surveillance is the practice of surveilling the entire, or a significant part of, the population (Egwuonwu, 2016). Many governments across the world now use mass surveillance techniques to monitor and control their population, such as Australia, China, United States of America, and India (Aziz, 2018). Although mass surveillance was originally implemented to fight against terrorism (Aziz, 2018; Laidler, 2018), it is often criticized for invading the privacy and internet freedom of the citizens, due to its indiscriminate surveillance of non-suspects (Aziz, 2018; Privacy International, n.d.) The People’s Republic of China [China] is currently one of the main investors in mass surveillance, spending $197 billion on domestic security in 2017 alone (Zenz, 2018). Mass surveillance in China is expanding every year with their strict internet surveillance, growing CCTV system, facial recognition technology and the implementation of the Chinese Social Credit System.

China has the world’s largest number of internet users, standing at 750 million (World Atlas, 2018), yet these users have some of the lowest levels of internet freedom around the world (Lum, Figliola & Weed, 2012). In fact, 70 people have been incarcerated and 200 placed under house arrest due to writing about or commenting on politically sensitive topics online (Fry, 2016; US Department of State, 2012; Freedom House, 2011). When the internet was first implemented, many believed it would be a liberating tool for China’s democratic development, however the Chinese government has managed to use network technologies to monitor online information and shape their own ideology online (Lee & Liu, 2012). After the successful revolt in Tunisian in 2011, many anonymous activists jumped online to call for a similar ‘jasmine revolution’ in China (Lee & Liu, 2012; Jacobs & Ansfield, 2011; Ramzy, 2011). This was the start of China’s online restrictions, as Beijing conducted large-scale internet and phone service censorship to stop activists using the internet to organise demonstrations and protests (Lee & Liu, 2012; Jacobs, 2011). Many countries believe that the internet creates a freer society, allowing for a free flow of information between societies (Deibert, 2002; Stevenson, 2007; Lee & Liu, 2012). In contrast, however, China has built a sophisticated filtering system for the internet which blocks a number of domestic and foreign websites that the government perceives as a threat to the Chinese state (Tang & Yang, 2011; Lee & Liu, 2012; Zhao, 2008). The Chinese State has blocked websites such as Google, and all affiliated products, Facebook, Twitter YouTube and Instagram (Michelini, 2018; Wauters, 2009). In spite of their strict censorship, China’s infrastructure for internet is one of the largest, in terms of scale, technology, and quality, with the number of users and yearly growth surpassing every other country in the world (Lee & Liu, 2012; Zhu & Wang, 2005; Deibert, Palfrey, Rohozinski & Zittrain, 2010).

China is perfecting their network of cameras used for digital espionage, aimed at catching and deterring criminals, however, these cameras also invade the privacy and freedom of China’s general population (Chin & Lin, 2017; Mitchell & Diamond, 2018; Grenoble, 2017). China is currently building the world’s most sophisticated camera surveillance system, with 170 million cameras already installed across the country and another 400 million planning to be installed by 2020 (Liu, Sudworth & Xiqing, 2017). The Chinese government have also implemented a range of high-definition facial recognition cameras that look and move like birds, to monitor criminal activities and suspects without being detected (Esteban, 2018; Chen, 2018; Cuthbertson, 2018). In Beijing, the number of cameras installed increased by 29% per year, with 100% of Beijing being under surveillance by 2012 (Yin, 2015; Custer, 2015; Huang, 2015). However, the United Kingdom beats China’s surveillance of Beijing, with an estimated 500,000 cameras distributed across the London suburbs (British Security Industry Authority, 2015). China and London’s surveillance systems are very similar, in number and growth, however London has not received as many harsh criticisms from the public. The public backlash against China’s intrusive surveillance is due to the extent the government is willing to go to achieve “100 per cent surveillance and facial recognition coverage” (National Development and Reform Commission, 2015; Long, 2018). The Chinese government is aiming to use cameras installed in smartphones and smart TV’s to contribute to their 100 per cent surveillance coverage; ultimately, Chinese citizens will also be under surveillance in their own homes (Long, 2018; Lam, 2018). The public outcry against China’s surveillance continues against what the government will be doing with the data they gain from the surveillance technology they have in place. The government stores all the collected data into databases, recording each action taken by an individual, people they associate with, or what they post online (Liu, et. al., 2017). This information is linked to an individual’s personal record via facial recognition and internet censorship (Chorzempa, Triolo & Sacks, 2018; Ma, 2018; Liu, et. al., 2017).

China’s network of cameras utilise facial recognition technology to track suspects, predict crime, and coordinate emergency services (National Development and Reform Commission, 2015), nevertheless, these cameras also track non-suspect activities and collate this information into a database, a fact many find to be an invasion of privacy (Denyer, 2018). For many Chinese citizens, facial recognition technology is an everyday tool; they can buy KFC, pay for a taxi, unlock their front door, or board a plane using only facial recognition (Denyer, 2018; Brennan, 2017; Talwar, 2017; Jourdan, 2017; Siqian, 2017; Zheng, 2017). However, these cameras used in daily life also record other information for the police, such as who tenants associate with, where they shop, what they buy, and their normal routines (Denyer, 2018; Liu, et. al., 2017). Chinese facial recognition cameras can read faces, find ethnicity, age, gender, and height (Liu, et. al., 2017). This information, along with information from internet surveillance and bank and phone records is stored in a ‘police cloud’ (Zhenxing & Weijun, 2016; Denyer, 2018). The Chinese police have used facial recognition cameras alongside their cloud database to find and arrest criminals, including one man they pinpointed in a crowd of 60,000 (Shelton, 2018), 25 wanted criminals at a beer concert in Qingdao (Chuanjiao, 2017), and 375 suspects from Guiyan in one year (Chan, 2018). The Chinese government admits to using facial recognition technology to predict and track the actions of activists and ethnic minorities, such as Muslims who may have “extreme thoughts” (Human Rights Watch, 2018). This police cloud system, although effective in tracking and arresting criminals, abuses the lack of privacy right protections against state surveillance in China (Human Rights Watch, 2018).

The Chinese state uses the information in the ‘police cloud’, gathered by their extensive internet and camera surveillance, to score each citizen ranking them based on their “trustworthiness” (Chorzempa, Triolo, & Sacks, 2018). This process is labelled as the Chinese Social Credit System [SCS]; the Chinese government has been implementing the SCS since 2014, with the system to be completed by 2020 across the country (State Council of the People’s Republic of China [State Council], 2014). The SCS ranks China’s 1.4 billion citizens by looking at a range of data, such as unpaid fines, jaywalking, social media, credit history, voting records, tax payments, conversations and shopping habits (Murrell, 2018; Chorzempa, Triolo & Sacks, 2018; Ma, 2018). The SCS can also access data to generate a score based on an individual’s location, information gleaned from facial recognition cameras around the country, health-tracking apps, and facts about an individual’s relationship, friends, and family (Murrell, 2018). The score someone receives can either deem them as trustworthy citizens or blacklist them for their untrustworthiness (Chorzempa, et. al., 2018; Ma, 2018; Murrell, 2018). If an individual is deemed as trustworthy they receive bonuses, such as job promotions, travel discounts, deposit-free rentals, and priority access to housing (Murrell, 2018; Chorzempa, et. al., 2018; Ma, 2018). Being blacklisted comes with punishments of restricted travel, being banned from the best schools or slower internet speeds (Chorzempa, et. al., 2018; Ma, 2018). SCS documents promise to “make trustworthy people benefit everywhere and untrustworthy people restricted everywhere” (State Council, 2014; Wang, 2017). Some citizens who are deemed untrustworthy can have their names, faces, and addresses posted onto public lists and billboards, with the Chinese government imposing such punishment more than seven million times by 2017 (Wang, 2017).

The Chinese government, which already oversees the largest surveillance network and strictest internet censorship in the world, has consistently limited the accessibility of tools to circumvent censorship and tightened their ideological control on mass media (Human Rights Watch, 2017). These mass surveillance techniques build the foundation for China’s Social Credit System and their predictive policing of suspects and non-suspects alike. With the Social Credit System being fully implemented by 2020, China will experience an even larger social backlash from human rights’ activists, regarding their indiscriminate surveillance and lack of policies regarding privacy from state surveillance (Human Rights Watch, 2017). Although China is the first country to openly rank their citizens based on a range of ‘big data’ information from mass surveillance, they are not the only country partaking in indiscriminate mass surveillance to protect their ideologies and state security. Many countries are following in China’s revolutionary steps in mass surveillance, implementing the foundations for their own Social Credit Systems, with backlash from many human rights companies across the globe (Human Rights Watch, 2017).


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