This should shock exactly nobody. China has been using the small amount of Uyghur terrorism they have been experiencing as an excuse to dramatically upgrade their surveillance technology.
It’s being sold to the public with the same slick semi-usefulness that Apple, Amazon and Google used to sell Americans on installing at-home surveillance systems. It’s convenient! [wapo]
For 40-year-old Mao Ya, the facial recognition camera that allows access to her apartment house is simply a useful convenience.
Again, we have a weird epistemology: “Bad Guys” are the problem.
But for the police, the cameras that replaced the residents’ old entry cards serve quite a different purpose.
Now they can see who’s coming and going, and by combining artificial intelligence with a huge national bank of photos, the system in this pilot project should enable police to identify what one police report, shared with The Washington Post, called the “bad guys” who once might have slipped by.
What if there are no “Bad Guys”? What if the object of control is control? What if the object of power is power? Surely no government would use such capabilities against its citizens, right?
It is past time to ask “who are the Bad Guys”?
When the US police state tried to build this, it was called “Total Information Awareness” and there was a mild public outcry and journalists covered it, until the program changed its name – or, more precisely, the inputs continued to collect their pieces, but the process of integrating it all into one gigantic data-swamp didn’t happen. It’s probably a good thing because it would have mostly implemented the biggest Big Data Boondoggle, ever.
The pilot in Chongqing forms one tiny part of an ambitious plan, known as “Xue Liang,” which can be translated as “Sharp Eyes.” The intent is to connect the security cameras that already scan roads, shopping malls and transport hubs with private cameras on compounds and buildings, and integrate them into one nationwide surveillance and data-sharing platform.
It will use facial recognition and artificial intelligence to analyze and understand the mountain of incoming video evidence; to track suspects, spot suspicious behaviors and even predict crime; to coordinate the work of emergency services; and to monitor the comings and goings of the country’s 1.4 billion people, official documents and security industry reports show.
At the back end, these efforts merge with a vast database of information on every citizen, a “Police Cloud” that aims to scoop up such data as criminal and medical records, travel bookings, online purchase and even social media comments – and link it to everyone’s identity card and face.
In both cases, AI is the presumed panacea for looking through billions and billions of records and trying to find patterns. AIs are good at that, if you train them with the right behavior-set. Message to former Stasi investigators: you can probably get a good job in China, training AIs, for a while. Basically, we’re heading into the territory where Black Mirror starts to look like a documentary: what happens when the AI decides you’re a subversive and cuts off your money, locks your apartment, refuses to let you board transportation, and you’ve just become one of the digitally disappeared? John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider [wik] may not be dystopian; it may be optimistic. If you work in IT, now, you may want to think about how to get a job in the department that manages identities; you’re going to need backdoors in those systems.
If you follow this blog, you already know that the US has a similar system, [stderr] they’ve just had to conceal it (a bit) behind public/private industry partnerships and classified mumbo-jumbo. But really, it’s a linear story-trajectory from J. Edgar Hoover’s file cabinets to the “radicals list” to COINTELPRO and vacuuming up mobile phone contact lists from protesters “kettled” at a rally. China is going at it a bit more overtly because they just don’t care quite as much.
In the showrooms of three facial-recognition start-ups in Chongqing and Beijing, video feeds roll past on big screens, with faces picked out from crowds and matched to images of wanted men and women. Street cameras automatically classify passersby according to gender, clothes and even hair length, and software allows people to be tracked from one surveillance camera to the next, by their faces alone.
Security checkpoints with identification scanners guard the train station and roads in and out of town. Facial scanners track comings and goings at hotels, shopping malls and banks. Police use hand-held devices to search smartphones for encrypted chat apps, politically charged videos and other suspect content. To fill up with gas, drivers must first swipe their ID cards and stare into a camera.
China’s efforts to snuff out a violent separatist movement by some members of the predominantly Muslim Uighur ethnic group have turned the autonomous region of Xinjiang, of which Urumqi is the capital, into a laboratory for high-tech social controls that civil-liberties activists say the government wants to roll out across the country.
When fruit vendor Parhat Imin swiped his card at a telecommunications office this summer to pay an overdue phone bill, his photo popped up with an “X.” Since then, he says, every scan of his ID card sets off an alarm. He isn’t sure what it signifies, but figures he is on some kind of government watch list because he is a Uighur and has had intermittent run-ins with the police.
He says he is reluctant to travel for fear of being detained. “They blacklisted me,” he says. “I can’t go anywhere.”
If the Chinese can make this system halfway work, they’re going to have a good customer in Israel (though I believe that Israel is already building their own version) and with the US currently in thrall to racist ultra-nationalists, I think we are looking at an unwelcome glimpse into our future.
During an October road trip into Xinjiang along a modern highway, two Wall Street Journal reporters encountered a succession of checkpoints that turned the ride into a strange and tense journey.
At Xingxing Gorge, a windswept pass used centuries ago by merchants plying the Silk Road, police inspected incoming traffic and verified travelers’ identities. The Journal reporters were stopped, ordered out of their car and asked to explain the purpose of their visit. Drivers, mostly those who weren’t Han Chinese, were guided through electronic gateways that scanned their ID cards and faces. [my emphasis]
Farther along, at the entrance to Hami, a city of a half-million, police had the Journal reporters wait in front of a bank of TV screens showing feeds from nearby surveillance cameras while recording their passport numbers.
Surveillance cameras loomed every few hundred feet along the road into town, blanketed street corners and kept watch on patrons of a small noodle shop near the main mosque. The proprietress, a member of the Muslim Hui minority, said the government ordered all restaurants in the area to install the devices earlier this year “to prevent terrorist attacks.”
The US system will be simple: it’ll check if you’re white.
“Racist ultra-nationalists” – as it has been, since the beginning.
“Most of whom weren’t Han Chinese” – what, exactly, is a “Han Chinese”? [stderr] Not to mention the Mongols, there was a lot of mixing with Japanese and Russians during the recent unpleasantness in the late 1930s and the 1940s. I suspect that the Chinese have no more idea what a Han Chinese is, than I do.
A prediction, if I may: these technologies amount to centralization and automation of the reins of political control. They make it easier for the few to control and manipulate the many. The end result is not more stable politics, it’s more palace coups. Look at Russia, which transitioned from a dictatorship to a pseudo-democracy, then was “flipped” by an intelligence service apparatchnik. In China, the central party has operated this way since Mao’s death. The US does not have a “deep state” but the power that is centralizing in the intelligence community and law enforcement apparatus – a revolution is not the danger; a palace coup, is.