Paul Mozur, The New York Times:
Beijing is embracing technologies like facial recognition and artificial intelligence to identify and track 1.4 billion people. It wants to assemble a vast and unprecedented national surveillance system, with crucial help from its thriving technology industry.
China is reversing the commonly held vision of technology as a great democratizer, bringing people more freedom and connecting them to the world. In China, it has brought control.
In some cities, cameras scan train stations for China’s most wanted. Billboard-size displays show the faces of jaywalkers and list the names of people who don’t pay their debts. Facial recognition scanners guard the entrances to housing complexes. Already, China has an estimated 200 million surveillance cameras — four times as many as the United States.
Such efforts supplement other systems that track internet use and communications, hotel stays, train and plane trips and even car travel in some places.
Invasive mass-surveillance software has been set up in the west to track members of the Uighur Muslim minority and map their relations with friends and family, according to software viewed by The New York Times.
“This is potentially a totally new way for the government to manage the economy and society,” said Martin Chorzempa, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“The goal is algorithmic governance,” he added.
“If you are captured by the system and you don’t see it, your neighbors or colleagues will, and they will gossip about it,” she said. “That’s too embarrassing for people to take.”
China’s new surveillance is based on an old idea: Only strong authority can bring order to a turbulent country. Mao Zedong took that philosophy to devastating ends, as his top-down rule brought famine and then the Cultural Revolution.
His successors also craved order but feared the consequences of totalitarian rule. They formed a new understanding with the Chinese people. In exchange for political impotence, they would be mostly left alone and allowed to get rich.
It worked. Censorship and police powers remained strong, but China’s people still found more freedom. That new attitude helped usher in decades of breakneck economic growth.
Today, that unwritten agreement is breaking down.
“Reform and opening has already failed, but no one dares to say it,” said Chinese historian Zhang Lifan, citing China’s four-decade post-Mao policy. “The current system has created severe social and economic segregation. So now the rulers use the taxpayers’ money to monitor the taxpayers.”
Mr. Xi has launched a major upgrade of the Chinese surveillance state. China has become the world’s biggest market for security and surveillance technology, with analysts estimating the country will have almost 300 million cameras installed by 2020. Chinese buyers will snap up more than three-quarters of all servers designed to scan video footage for faces, predicts IHS Markit, a research firm. China’s police will spend an additional $30 billion in the coming years on techno-enabled snooping, according to one expert quoted in state media.
Government contracts are fueling research and development into technologies that track faces, clothing and even a person’s gait. Experimental gadgets, like facial-recognition glasses, have begun to appear.
Start-ups often make a point of insisting their employees use their technology. In Shanghai, a company called Yitu has taken that to the extreme.
The halls of its offices are dotted with cameras, looking for faces. From desk to break room to exit, employees’ paths are traced on a television screen with blue dotted lines. The monitor shows their comings and goings, all day, everyday.
In China, snooping is becoming big business.
Anything sound familiar?