Chinese Surveillance Tech, from Xinjiang to S. America

China’s increasingly advanced biometric and electronic surveillance technologies, including the widely misunderstood and still nascent Social Credit System, have attracted mounting attention in recent months. On Monday, South China Morning Post’s Jun Mai reported on a Chinese system deployed across Ecuador in late 2016, which has now been credited with a 24% crime rate reduction:

A network of cameras has been installed across the South American nation’s 24 provinces – keeping watch on its population of 16.4 million people – using a system known as the ECU911 Integrated Security Service, Xinhua reported.

[…] “The hardware we have … allows us to use facial recognition technology. We have already applied it in Cuenca and at the airports in Quito and Guayaquil,” Sixto Heras, deputy director of the service, was quoted by Xinhua as saying.

[…] A system to locate mobile phones has also been introduced.

“It’s a tool that lets you locate a mobile device and track it. That has been essential in rescues, and in identifying people who are lost or kidnapped,” Leon said. “This technology can improve police operations.”

[… China Electronics Corporation]’s reach extends far beyond China’s homeland security, and the system in Ecuador is not its first project in South America. In Brazil, CEC was involved in using Chinese technology to monitor environmental risks in the Amazon rainforest. But in Bolivia and Venezuela, as in Ecuador, its projects are to do with public security. [Source]

Xinjiang has been a key testing ground for many of these technologies. Last week, Bloomberg reported a further development on that front:

The Muslim-dominated villages on China’s western frontier are testing facial-recognition systems that alert authorities when targeted people venture more than 300 meters (1,000 feet) beyond designated “safe areas,” according to a person familiar with the project. The areas comprise individuals’ homes and workplaces, said the person, who requested anonymity to speak to the media without authorization.

“A system like this is obviously well-suited to controlling people,” said Jim Harper, executive vice president of the libertarian-leaning Competitive Enterprise Institute and a founding member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee. “‘Papers, please’ was the symbol of living under tyranny in the past. Now, government officials don’t need to ask.”

[…] The alert project links security cameras to a database of people who have attracted the attention of authorities and tracks their movements within a particular area, the person said. Police can follow up by intercepting individuals or visiting their homes and questioning their friends and families.

Harper from the Competitive Enterprise Institute has been researching the potential adoption of facial recognition systems in America. He said such systems could make controlling large groups far less expensive.

“People will believe that they are being watched all the time,” Harper said. “And this will cause them to curtail their own freedom.” [Source]

U.S.-backed Radio Free Asia reported this week that mobile phones in the region were being inspected at checkpoints and in some cases confiscated, possibly for deeper examination, while tens of thousands of Uyghurs have been placed in "overcrowded and squalid" political reeducation camps. Reporting on the Bloomberg article last week, The Guardian’s Tom Phillips quoted Amnesty’s William Nee on the proliferation of surveillance technologies in Xinjiang and the prospect of exports:

“They are combining all of these things to create, essentially, a total police state,” said William Nee, a China campaigner at Amnesty International.

[…] Nee said reports that Islamic State had recruited some Uighurs meant some surveillance was justified: “China does face a real threat from terrorism with all of the people who have gone to Syria and could, potentially, come back.”

However, the indiscriminate targeting of Uighurs was fuelling “incredible anger” and happening outside the boundaries of international or Chinese law.

“People should really pay attention to this because they could easily use the same tools of surveillance elsewhere in China, or for export. A lot of these companies will naturally want to grow their businesses and sell this technology to other authoritarian countries, or even democracies, that are looking for the same tools of control.” [Source]

South China Morning Post’s Sidney Leng cited another observer of China’s expanding surveillance state, who anticipated the further spread of Chinese surveillance tech:

Sebastian Heilmann, who coined the term “digital Leninism” based on developments in China, said the discipline and obedience of Leninism were a tight fit with the digital surveillance and big data technologies that the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping had pushed over the past few years.

[…] He said Western economies often viewed digital technology as “an add-on” or “a freewheeling networking and communication device” whereas China’s Communist Party saw it as a transforming force.

“For [China] it’s very clear from the beginning that this is a watershed and they have to use and manage it,” he said.

[…] In his book, Red Swan: How Unorthodox Policy-Making Facilitated China’s Rise, Heilmann says one part of the model China is promoting is the continued roll-out of comprehensive and effective state surveillance systems based on new IT and communications technology.

“Commercial interest will drive this development globally, as China exports its increasingly powerful security and surveillance technology,” he wrote. [Source]

At Lawfare last week, University of Virginia Law School’s Ashley Deeks identified technology exports as one of "a range of second-order questions that we should begin to think about as facial recognition software continues to improve and as its use expands, both within and beyond China’s borders."

A second challenge is posed by the fact that this technology surely will spread to other (probably authoritarian) countries. China seems committed to becoming a (maybe the) leader in artificial intelligence, and is promoting startups that focus in this area. No doubt China will seek to export AI technology to other states that seek a high level of government and social control over their populations. Sooner or later, the United States therefore will need to decide what it thinks about the use of pervasive video surveillance and, more specifically, whether this kind of surveillance violates basic human rights norms.

I have not been able to find U.S. government statements, law review articles, or statements from nongovernmental organizations articulating views about whether such pervasive surveillance implicates Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states in part that “[n]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.” (If such documents exist, I would welcome reader feedback.) […]

China is not a party to the ICCPR, so it need not be troubled as a matter of international law by charges that this level of surveillance runs afoul of international privacy rules. However, many other states are parties to the agreement. How will the United States react, if at all, when those states begin to employ China’s techniques? Will the United States argue that pervasive public surveillance violates the covenant? Where and how will it draw the line between permissible and impermissible levels of surveillance? Does the agreement’s privacy provision even have enough teeth to offer a shield against Chinese-level facial surveillance? [Source]

January 23, 2018, 6:53 PM
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