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:

The Chinese Communist Party’s control over Chinese can look ironclad from afar, but often it’s mediated. A local official told us they did thought work to convince people of the need for the system. Still, as surveillance has crept closer to Chinese doorsteps, concerns grow.
— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) December 18, 2019

For anyone who thinks Chinese are easily controlled by the CCP, this photo says it all. The doors are propped open. In the middle is the new, now useless, facial recognition system. Above is a notice from local leaders instructing people to respect the new technology. pic.twitter.com/VlyPnBSshe
— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) December 18, 2019

Still in most cases people don’t understand the technology, and police don’t explain it. Crime and safety are used as an excuse, and many drink that down. The buildout is so overwhelming and unnecessary though, it’s clearly about control. pic.twitter.com/eEfNLeF08y
— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) December 18, 2019

It’s not close to digital totalitarianism yet, but it reminds me of the earlier days of the Great Firewall. Back then people said the internet couldn’t be controlled. Fifteen years later, its very much tamed in China.
— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) December 18, 2019

What the police are doing is putting in the ground floor on a system to control reality as tightly as the internet. One that harvests data in the same way and allows for a deeper understanding just about everything about people. pic.twitter.com/Q95SpYpbeH
— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) December 18, 2019

It also attempts to link the internet with reality. China’s internet police are increasingly responding in real time to question people who have said things deemed questionable online. Eventually the goal is to link all online and offline behavior. https://t.co/zThx7ce6xd
— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) December 18, 2019

This buildout is far more important than issues like social credit. While such data is tracked elsewhere, it’s often far more fragmented. Concentrated under the police, the plan is to engineer a social reality forever stable, guided by the Party, under watch of the police. pic.twitter.com/RQRh6C1Bwr
— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) December 18, 2019

The world is not always harmonious, and in China attempts to make it so come through intimidation and often crushing social controls. Now that Beijing’s authoritarianism has the help of very average tech, it’s putting a whole new world of totalizing control within reach. pic.twitter.com/USxhDwHj38
— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) December 18, 2019
Also on Twitter, The Economist’s Simon Rabinovitch recently showed some examples of how surveillance vendors present their wares:

I had a look at some marketing websites for Chinese surveillance technology, and they’re pretty much what you’d expect: deeply unsettling.
Here’s a brief tour. (1/x) pic.twitter.com/b7v5igzSOb
— Simon Rabinovitch (@S_Rabinovitch) December 16, 2019

First off, this is obviously a booming market. There are dozens of companies with similar facial-recognition products. The US can try to go after Hikvision, but there’s also SunQTech, JVT, Cinris, Cobber, iCare (they do), etc, etc. It’s almost endless. (2/x)
— Simon Rabinovitch (@S_Rabinovitch) December 16, 2019

Website design is a bit like Shutterstock meets the panopticon.
Here’s a savvy businessman looking to the future. (3/x) pic.twitter.com/4NH5bdgAZ1
— Simon Rabinovitch (@S_Rabinovitch) December 16, 2019

Hair tousled, relaxing next to the train track, as one does. (The point here is that back-lit faces are no obstacle for the technology.) (4/x) pic.twitter.com/23Hkx40Ohu
— Simon Rabinovitch (@S_Rabinovitch) December 16, 2019

Carefree children running in the school yard.
(Point here is that movement is no obstacle for the technology.) (5/x) pic.twitter.com/zCHPVl2FTd
— Simon Rabinovitch (@S_Rabinovitch) December 16, 2019

Several companies talk of their ability to track people’s movements: for example, linking up cameras to show someone’s route in real time.
(We know this is happening, but it’s something else to see it so clearly laid out.) (6/x) pic.twitter.com/xNprNO9vdJ
— Simon Rabinovitch (@S_Rabinovitch) December 16, 2019

Or going through archived images to see the different cities one has visited over time. (7/x) pic.twitter.com/vw8rDyTtUs
— Simon Rabinovitch (@S_Rabinovitch) December 16, 2019

Companies give plenty of examples of their tech in use: on city streets, at building entrances, in train stations, outside big tourist sites, etc. None of this is surprising given the proliferation of cameras, but it does underscore the scale of demand for these products. (8/x)
— Simon Rabinovitch (@S_Rabinovitch) December 16, 2019

Chinese firms are hardly alone in developing this kind of tech. Cisco, Palantir, etc are probably more sophisticated than the vast majority of their Chinese competitors. (9/x)
— Simon Rabinovitch (@S_Rabinovitch) December 16, 2019

Actually the Chinese firms, to their (presumably unintentional) credit, are candid in talking about potential uses.
Take the sweetly named Smile: it says its tech can be used for monitoring drug users or petitioners (ordinary people bringing grievances to the government). (10/x) pic.twitter.com/5lp0SRAynQ
— Simon Rabinovitch (@S_Rabinovitch) December 16, 2019

One final point: most of the tech products and case studies featured on these websites are from the past 2-3 years. So this is not a look at the future, at least not in China. If anything, this is already history. (11/11)
— Simon Rabinovitch (@S_Rabinovitch) December 16, 2019
Industry monitor IPVM added:

Be careful about interpreting websites, surveillance tech websites regularly make trials, small deployments, betas, etc. look like the norm; e.g., recently spoke to execs from a provider marketing super advanced tech for 7 years, admitted only 2 deployments in that time 2/2
— IPVM (@ipvideo) December 16, 2019
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 Xinjiang 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 ]

2/ The fact there are 1.8 million people in mass detention camps in Xinjiang should itself suggest the Chinese state is not interested in precision, predictive policing, or overcoming false positives. If you don’t care about accuracy, you don’t need AI to achieve your goals.
— Yuan Yang (@YuanfenYang) December 11, 2019

3/ Yes, China has high ambitions for the use of big data in national security. But as @wang_maya ‘s research points out, these systems are in their very early stages. Officers have said they’re a mess.
— Yuan Yang (@YuanfenYang) December 11, 2019
© Samuel Wade for China Digital Times (CDT) , get_post_time('Y'). | Permalink | No comment | Add to del.icio.us Post tags: facial recognition , surveillance , tech companies , technology , Xinjiang , Xinjiang re-education camps
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2019-12-19 | Information Revolution, Law, Level 2 Article | English |