Op-ed: Why China’s video surveillance should be viewed as a cautionary tale for democracies around the world

By David S. Levin, writer from New York

For what it’s worth, I’m not an alarmist. I write what I see in an attempt to make sense of the bedlam swirling all around us. But frankly, a lot of what’s happening lately is actually pretty damn alarming. Today, there are vital freedoms like privacy that are under attack from anxious governments all over that see it as a threat to their dominion and sovereignty. And they’re using bleeding-edge technology as their weapon of choice.

Thanks to a burgeoning electronic surveillance industry, a grim high-tech future is slowly unfolding that could’ve been written by George Orwell himself. But, instead, it’s being written by technocrats and politicians. And you can bet your last bitcoin that if Big Brother isn’t snooping around your country yet, they will be soon enough.

Enter China. The 800-pound dystopian gorilla in the room and the poster child for mass public surveillance gone mad. To the Chinese, privacy is the enemy of the state. So, the government, not known for its delicate touch, rolled-out the Skynet Project and put up 200 million CCTV cameras across the country that feed directly into local and regional law enforcement agencies. That basically works out to one camera for every seven people there; watching, identifying, recording and analysing every move they make.

Cleverly wrapped in the guise of “public safety,” the literal Chinese translation of the word Skynet is “Tianwang” which is part of an idiom that means “justice is always done.” This way, none of China’s 1.4 billion citizens will ever have to think too hard about who’s in charge.

But that’s just the prologue. By some estimates, they’re expected to reach a staggering 625 million CCTV cameras, all outfitted with artificial intelligence and video analytics, within just a few years. And there are some projections showing numbers that are even higher. The saying “you can run but you can’t hide” has taken on an entirely new meaning there.

In today’s China, everyone’s a suspect.

And here’s the punchline. Despite all the moral outrage about this in the West, not to mention the fallout from Donald Trump’s punitive trade war with China, much of the technology used there is still developed and sold by top American tech companies like Hewlett Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Intel, and Seagate Technologies. And not just to the Chinese. Silicon Valley companies have an active presence in 32 countries around the world.

Last year, the worldwide market for video surveillance stood at $36.89bn of which China accounted for nearly $18 billion. And according to IHS Markit, by the end of 2021 the number of surveillance cameras deployed worldwide is expected to top one billion.

Suffice it to say, Big Tech is all in on the global surveillance boom. No matter who buys it.

China’s President, Xi Jinping, is busily building a digital authoritarian empire in his own image. And just to be sure he’s around long enough to see the completion of his grand masterpiece, he removed term-limits to China’s constitution and is now president for life. Nice touch.

His cutting-edge surveillance state is tracking China’s resident’s day and night with sophisticated facial recognition technology, zeroing in on criminals and people whose “tendencies” go against the state. With hundreds of citizens displayed in a single video frame, cameras place thin yellow squares around people’s faces with unique identifying numbers on top as they walk the streets in cities like Beijing or Qingdao. Fed into massive government databases, complex algorithms crunch and analyse the images, tracking and identifying people who might be considered suspicious for any number of reasons and then notifying law enforcement or other agencies.

In Xinjiang recently, which is a semi-autonomous, largely Muslim region in northwestern China, their provincial surveillance system recently identified 24,000 suspicious persons in a single week using facial recognition technology. Of those, 15,000 were sent to re-education camps to be “standardized.” Clearly, the Chinese have figured out that combining Mao Zedong-style repression with unrelenting electronic surveillance is the perfect digital stick to regulate the masses.

But now, they’re getting really creative. They’re using their sprawling web of closed-circuit cameras, database technology and artificial intelligence to feed directly into a scoring system that assigns “social credit scores” to each of their citizens. It is designed to rate their trustworthiness and “public desirability” by analyzing their social behavior and then determining what they can do, what they can buy, and even if they can travel.

And as part of a broader surveillance push, and in the name of national security, they’re even “encouraging” people to use mobile phone apps developed by the government that allow civilians to report violations against the state. In the old days, it was just called ratting out your friends and neighbors. Now, thankfully, like everything else these days, there’s an app for that.

In China, Big Brother has arrived with a bang. Call it Mao 2.0  

So, here’s the question. How long will it be until other governments start pushing the line like the Chinese have? Try imagining this in the U.S. or the UK. Maybe in Brazil or Canada. “That would never happen here” you’re probably thinking to yourself.  Well, don’t think too hard. Because much of the technology being used in China is already in use in other countries around the world. Just not quite in the same way. At least not yet.

The West has been watching the Chinese develop their digital web since they first laid out the blueprints for the wholesale surveillance of its citizenry. The United States already has over 60 million CCTV cameras feeding into law enforcement around the country. In the UK, there are an estimated 6 million of them. According to some estimates, the average Londoner is caught on camera roughly 300 times a day. And in the U.S., cities like Washington, Orlando and Denver are openly testing facial recognition and other AI technologies in their policing. As expected, the lawsuits are flying fast and furious. 

What’s happening in China today should be viewed as a cautionary tale for the U.S. and other democracies. Mass electronic surveillance has serious implications for the way urban life will play out in the decades ahead. And there is nothing the Chinese are doing that couldn’t be implemented anywhere else given the right, or more accurately, the wrong political conditions.

If this potential dire future isn’t halted through the use of a strong judicial system and hardened grass- roots activism, what’s happening in China today could be a preview of the way order is established and maintained in the 21st century.

And George Orwell could wind up being even be more prophetic than any of us ever dreamed.

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