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Intersection: Sidewalks & Public Space

Chapter by Melissa Ngo

"The Myth of Security Under Camera Surveillance"


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    NPR Considers Government and Personal Surveillance and Privacy in China

    NPR has a two-part series on surveillance and privacy in China. The first story looks at the government-created camera surveillance system set up throughout the country (which can be supplemented by eavesdropping on individuals’ conversations by remotely turning their cellphones into listening devices)  and its implications for individual privacy. The second story looks at increasing personal use by Chinese citizens of spy gear such as location-tracking, hidden cameras or secret audio devices.

    In China, Beware: A Camera May Be Watching You

    China is becoming a surveillance state. In recent years, the government has installed more than 20 million cameras across a country where a decade ago there weren’t many.

    Today, in Chinese cities, cameras are everywhere: on highways, in public parks, on balconies, in elevators, in taxis, even in the stands at sporting events.

    Officials say the cameras help combat crime and maintain “social stability” — a euphemism for shutting up critics.

    In fact, the government routinely uses cameras to monitor and intimidate dissidents. Human rights activists worry that more surveillance will erode the freedom of ordinary people and undermine what little ability they have to question their rulers. [...]

    Chinese state security agents have privately confirmed they can turn cellphones into listening devices. [...]

    In 2005, China began building a nationwide surveillance system. Officials dubbed it “Skynet,” with no apparent sense of irony. “Skynet” is also the name of the computer system in theTerminator films that attacks mankind.

    The government placed cameras along streets, on public buses and outside the homes of dissidents. After uprisings in the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, the authorities also installed cameras in mosques and temples.

    In China, The Government Isn’t The Only Spy Game In Town

    It all started with a local Chinese official.

    He couldn’t figure out how his wife, who suspected him of having an affair, knew the contents of his private conversations.

    “His wife knew things that he said in his car and office, including conversations over the telephone,” recalls Qi Hong, a former journalist from Shandong province in eastern China, and a friend of the official.

    So Qi asked a buddy who owned bug-detecting equipment to help.

    “This friend discovered a listening device under the official’s car seat,” Qi recalls. “In his office, he discovered a tiny hidden camera on the bookshelf.”

    Qi and the local official were shocked: “It dawned on us: This sort of thing was happening a lot in China.” [...]

    After helping the official, Qi bought some bug-detecting equipment himself. Over the next year, he says, he helped more than a hundred friends find more than 300 surveillance devices.

    Qi says many people were bugged by suspicious wives or jealous mistresses. In other cases, though, he says government officials spied on each other. [...]

    Listening devices and hidden cameras are illegal in China but easy to buy. I found a vendor in a Shanghai electronics market who openly sold tiny surveillance equipment hidden inside pens, buttons, glasses and USB drives.

    Qi says he has found surveillance cameras planted in some pretty personal places.

    “They generally aim at people’s beds and where they shower,” Qi says. “They want to know your secrets, your private life.”

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