The sheer scope of various efforts (by various State and non-State actors) to extend the reach of surveillance across cities in China is terrifying:
China is ramping up its ability to spy on its nearly 1.4 billion people to new and disturbing levels, giving the world a blueprint for how to build a digital totalitarian state.
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.
Once combined and fully operational, the tools can help police grab the identities of people as they walk down the street, find out who they are meeting with and identify who does and doesn’t belong to the Communist Party.
The United States and other countries use some of the same techniques to track terrorists or drug lords. Chinese cities want to use them to track everybody.
The rollout has come at the expense of personal privacy. The Times found that the authorities parked the personal data of millions of people on servers unprotected by even basic security measures. It also found that private contractors and middlemen have wide access to personal data collected by the Chinese government.
This build-out has only just begun, but it is sweeping through Chinese cities. The surveillance networks are controlled by local police, as if county sheriffs in the United States ran their own personal versions of the National Security Agency.
By themselves, none of China’s new techniques are beyond the capabilities of the United States or other countries. But together, they could propel China’s spying to a new level, helping its cameras and software become smarter and more sophisticated.
It goes on to highlight three distinct and troubling implications of such massive invasions of privacy:
- the State has more control over individuals, either by actually having the technical capability of tracking persons, or simply by chilling free speech and movement;
- the damage caused by leaks of such personal data stored on unsecured servers is amplified the more data is gathered;
- abuses of power by individuals operating either as part of the State or as other actors with access to such data can occur.
While there are instances of small-scale resistance, the situation appears entirely hopeless. It is worth noting that the technologies used are easily acquired and operated by many other countries. And many of these technologies (e.g. facial recognition) have been very quickly adopted already. We who are more fortunate must be wary and prevent our own countries from going down the same path.