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How China is building a panopticon for its citizens


The Western world is paranoid about possible Chinese surveillance, while its citizens are already used to being spied on. China is collecting huge amounts of data about its inhabitants - from voice and DNA to the quantity of electricity used - with a pretext of state security.

The global discussion on China revolves around Huawei and its probable espionage, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, experts claim. China practises its surveillance techniques in the country on a massive scale. Moreover, there are documented cases of tech companies passing data from overseas to Chinese government.

Mass surveillance in Xinjiang

Maya Wang, senior researcher on China from Human Rights Watch, explains that the Chinese government has been collecting a lot of personal data: faces, voices, DNA samples, and peoples’ phone identifiers.

“People are required to use ID cards in a very wide range of scenarios. When people use the internet, they need an ID number. They need an ID when they get a SIM card, when they travel on long distance buses, trains, planes, and when they access social media. That  creates a log of people's lives online,” Maya Wang said at the RightsCon 2020 summit.

As a result, the Chinese government has DNA, voice recognition, and facial recognition databases. They are separate for now, but officials are putting a lot of effort into consolidating these systems.

“It’s where we come to Xinjiang, northwest part of the country, where half of the population are Turkic Muslims, they are minorities. The government has spent enormous effort and money in collecting that data and integrating a lot of that data to track the Turkic Muslims’ whereabouts and what they are up to for social control,” says Maya Wang.

In Xinjiang, there’s a system called Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) that consolidates many of the sensory systems that are placed in public places. The system is designed to pick up social abnormalities. But what does it mean?

“For example, the system picks up whether someone uses too much electricity. It also can pick up information if you donate very enthusiastically to a mosque,” told Wang.

The system is connected to an app on government officials’ phones. When a system picks up an abnormality about a certain individual, it sends a message to the government official and prompts them to go and visit that person. They have to fill an online form and answer a question whether this seems suspicious and requires investigation by police.

“We have documented how people are being taken to political education camps after they have been flagged by the system. So it is not just a theoretical monitoring big data system, it has consequences to peoples’ lives in a form of deprivation of liberties in these camps,” explained Maya Wang.

Three men having conversation in Xinhiang
Three elderly men of the Uyghur minority having a conversation at a street in Kashgar Old Town

Digital public shaming as punishment

Shazeda Ahmed, Predoctoral Fellow at Stanford and Ph.D. Candidate at UC Berkeley, spent late 2018 and early 2019 in China - she went to 10 different cities, talked with people from the universities, a few government officials, and attended conferences to work on the national social credit system.

In 2014, the Chinese State Council issued a planning outline for the creation of a social credit system.

“There’s a call to crack down on untrustworthy behaviour,” said Shazeda Ahmed.

Untrustworthy behaviour can entail things that violate administrative law. “Let’s say you want to start a business with somebody who is a stranger to you, but you have no way of knowing if they have debts. So the question is how do you find who to trust? The solution is publicizing information about these so called untrustworthy actors while also imposing additional sanctions,” explained Shazeda Ahmed.

Courts can generate black lists of people who have violated administrative law and have not fulfilled their court orders. 63 tech companies, banks, and insurance companies have signed memoranda of understanding with the national development and reform commission for information sharing. There’s a state credit information center where courts can share data with platforms and tech companies so that they can punish users on their platforms in accordance with the law.

CCTV+ tweet screenshot

“So there’s luxury consumption restrictions, for example. It might be that you can’t buy plane tickets because there’s fear of you fleeing the country. Further you might not be able to send your children to private school because that is considered a luxury,” told Shazeda Ahmed.

When tech companies become a part of enforcing court orders they turn to digital public shaming as punishment. Shazeda Ahmed talked about how the city of Nanning partnered with Duoyin (TikTok) to broadcast photos of those who fall behind on China’s social credit system. People who saw the ads were encouraged to disclose the whereabouts of “crooks” in exchange for a reward. A month later, a court in Henan province made a video displaying names, addresses, and partial identities of the debtors along with the amount they owe.

Huawei is just a drop in the ocean

“It seems that most of the debate is focused on Huawei and espionage, and a very narrow definition of what espionage is, without taking into consideration the way that Chinese Communist Party defines state security,” Samantha Hoffman, analyst at Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said at the RightsCon 2020 summit.

The Communist Party of China places its political security at the core of national security, and it can be safeguarded through culture and ideology. Samantha Hoffman believes that the so-called “Party-State” intends to shape, manage, and control its global operating environment so that public sentiment is favorable to its interests.

Read more: Why there are no winners in a tech cold war between China and the West

She exposed how China is harvesting data on a global scale. Samantha Hoffman analyzed Chinese fintech and research data analytical company GTCOM and now states that this company through a network of relationships with more prominent Chinese companies Alibaba and Huawei was involved in massive data collection globally through language translation technology.

GTCOM is a subsidiary of a state-owned enterprise supervised by the Central Propaganda Department in China. GTCOM collects data from around the world in more than 65 languages, and analyses it for the government and business clients.

“The data it is collecting can say to the Communist Party of China a lot about the society and the way it can be influenced,” said Samantha Hoffman.

GTCOM, she explained, is not the only company engaging in this kind of activity: “It is actually operating in an ecosystem of the companies and it relies on its relationship with other companies that help with things like voice and facial recognition. It also relies on companies like Huawei and Alibaba to expand its global access.”

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