Decades ago, China began a system of online surveillance and censorship that was nicknamed “the Great Firewall of China.” Now, that firewall is getting stronger, and there is also an increase in broader surveillance of the public, and the surveillance is becoming more focused, so a particular individual could be targeted.
China has long had a vast camera surveillance, or CCTV, system throughout the country and it includes face-recognition technology. In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that Industry researcher IHS Markit estimated “China has 176 million surveillance cameras in public and private hands, and it forecasts the nation will install about 450 million new ones by 2020. The U.S., by comparison, has about 50 million.” And the Chinese government is using pairing the CCTV surveillance systems with biometric technology “on streets, in subway stations, at airports and at border crossings in a vast experiment in social engineering. Their goal: to influence behavior and identify lawbreakers.”
The system is powerful. BBC News recently reported that, in a test, it took China’s surveillance system seven minutes to locate and apprehend one of its reporters. Notably, China’s CCTV system isn’t the only one to integrate face-recognition technology in order to better target individuals.
In Moscow, the Washington Post reports that the government has expanded its camera surveillance system. “Over the past six years, the city has contracted with telecommunications operators to install more than 130,000 cameras, many of them boasting high resolution, zoom and swivel functions, and an uplink to a centralized database accessed by 16,000 municipal, regional and federal officials, including 6,000 law enforcement officers.” The Post also reports that biometric technology is being tested with the surveillance system, a facial recognition program made by NTechLab:
In the office, the young aide dropped a file with his face into the program. Within 10 seconds, the system had identified and displayed photographs of him walking into work and into his home, and at the store, culled from the past three weeks. The system is installed on only 1,150 cameras, they told me, and while they had 10 million faces stored in the system already, it was still a work in progress.
But the CCTV system isn’t the only way that China keeps tabs on its citizens and visitors.
The Washington Post reported in September that the Chinese government is seeking to shore up its system of online censorship and surveillance. “Since passing its broad new Cybersecurity Law in June, the Communist Party has rolled out new regulations — and steps to enforce existing ones — that reflect its desire to control and exploit every inch of the digital world, experts say.” For example, beginning October 1, the government forbade anonymous online posts, TechCrunch reported.
The Chinese government also has imposed location-tracking on some of its citizens. Earlier this year, the government ordered residents of an area in Xinjiang “to install GPS tracking devices in their vehicles so authorities are able to keep permanent tabs on their movements. […] Drivers who refuse to do so will not be allowed to fill their tanks at petrol stations,” the Guardian reported.
And recently, the same Xinjiang area faced more privacy-invasive, government-imposed requirements. In a new report, Human Rights Watch says Chinese authorities are “collecting DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types of all residents in the region between the age of 12 and 65.” HRW reports that new guidelines “say the biometric collection will be comprehensive: officials have ‘to ensure that [information from] every household in every village, every person in every household, every item for every person’ will be collected. There is no indication that people can opt out of the collection, or any requirement of informed consent.”
The widespread surveillance and information- and biometric-collection in China create the specter of a frightening invasion of privacy. The government seems to be creating a system that would make it easy to track any specific person over the course of his or her day or week or year. Why is she going to a medical treatment facility every two weeks? (Tracked via iris scans into the facility.) Why was he at the past four political demonstrations in Beijing? (Found via facial-recognition-enabled CCTV systems.) This would not merely be location-tracking. It would be life-tracking. China has already foreshadowed that with the ease with which it located the BBC News reporter.