Zooming Out on Chinese Surveillance Technology

The array of surveillance technologies being deployed across China has been receiving widespread attention. At The New York Times this week, Paul Mozur and Aaron Krolik looked at how these surveillance tools are being combined in an overall system more intrusive and effective than the sum of its sometimes relatively crude parts. The article describes how these capabilities have become available to lower-level local authorities than in the past, while the data collected is accessible by a wide range of officials, contractors, or—through frequently poor security practices—anyone else.

Chinese authorities are knitting together old and state-of-the-art technologies — phone scanners, facial-recognition cameras, face and fingerprint databases and many others — into sweeping tools for authoritarian control, according to police and private databases examined by The New York Times.

[…] Even for China’s police, who enjoy broad powers to question and detain people, this level of control is unprecedented. Tracking people so closely once required cooperation from uncooperative institutions in Beijing. The state-run phone companies, for example, are often reluctant to share sensitive or lucrative data with local authorities, said people with knowledge of the system.

[…] Data from the Shijiachi [housing] complex was parked on an unprotected server. Details included 482 residents’ identification numbers, names, ages, marital and family status, and records of their membership in the Communist Party. For those who used the facial-recognition cameras to enter and exit, it also stored a detailed account of their comings and goings.

[…] Nearby networks were similarly unprotected. They held data from 31 residences in the area, with details on 8,570 people. A car-tracking system near Shijiachi showed records for 3,456 cars and personal information about their owners. Across China, unprotected databases hold information on students and teachers in schools, on online activity in internet cafes and on hotel stays and travel records.[Source]

Mozur offered additional commentary and material in a lengthy Twitter thread, which concluded:

Also on Twitter, The Economist’s Simon Rabinovitch recently showed some examples of how surveillance vendors present their wares:

Industry monitor IPVM added:

In his own thread, Mozur noted that “the key is not so much tech as a lack of checks on police power.” In an op-ed at The Financial Times last week, Yuan Yang similarly argued for an expanded focus on the technology’s wider context. Focusing on the tools contributing to ongoing mass detentions in Xinjiang, she wrote that the “central question” of “what counts as a terrorist […] is ultimately decided by humans, not just machines”:

In the wake of the leaks, IJOP, an “integrated joint operations platform”, has been described as a form of “predictive” policing that uses “big data” and artificial intelligence. Yet while AI does aid the inputting of data — through tools such as facial-recognition cameras — there is no evidence so far that it is used by the IJOP to form decisions about individuals.

In associating China’s repression in with sophisticated, AI-driven policing models, we may be assuming too much. The IJOP’s technology is at root driven by political objectives that are blunt and indiscriminate.

As Edward Schwarck, a PhD student researching Chinese public security at the University of Oxford, says: “Calling it intelligence-led or predictive policing draws attention away from the fact that what is happening in Xinjiang is not about policing at all, but a form of social engineering.”

China has high ambitions for the use of big data in national security and set up a series of labs, starting in Xinjiang’s Urumqi, to research the topic. But officers lament that their systems are a mess. Crimes such as political dissent are so loosely interpreted that one may never be able to predict them precisely. [Source]

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