China Touts Mass Surveillance Goals at ‘Big Data’ Expo

A Cellebrite engineer explains the technology used to unlock smartphones and pull data
AFP/Jack Guez

China launched its International Big Data Industry Expo 2018 on Saturday in the city of Guiyang with remarks by Vice Minister of Industry and Information Technology Chen Zhaxiong, who boasted of his nation’s establishment of massive data platforms for manufacturing, commerce, finance, transportation, and medical care. The conference is expected to have about 40,000 guests.

Chen predicted China would soon become the largest producer of data in the world, handling a fifth of global data storage and processing by 2020.

Of course, the state-run Global Times put the happiest possible face on China’s Big Data revolution, framing it as a vital feature of what the Chinese government sells to the world as benevolent corruption-free managerial socialism:

Compared to industry leaders, China is blessed with its ability to collect and manage data due to the country’s abundance of talent and government support, said Xiang Yang, industry analyst from Beijing-based CCID Consulting.

Big data technology, which has rapidly developed in China in recent years, is mostly used to improve people’s lives and help the government make decisions, Qin An, head of the Beijing-based Institute of China Cyberspace Strategy, told the Global Times on Sunday.

The Guizhou Berkeley Big Data Innovation Research Center (GBIC) launched two public welfare campaigns using big data technology to benefit left-behind ophthalmologists in rural areas at the expo, the Xinhua News Agency reported on Sunday.

By collecting online diagnosis of 100,000 cataract patients in Guizhou, the center said three-year program hopes to compensate for the lack of professional ophthalmologists in remote and poor counties in the province.

The facial recognition system also helped the local public security bureau solve more than 90 percent of criminal cases, after the city established a big data command center, a publicity department official surnamed Huang from the Guiyang Public Security Bureau told the Global Times. “The system is also capable of scanning faces and comparing them to its database of at-large criminal suspects. One a match is made, police are immediately notified,” Huang said.

The Global Times touted China’s “strict regulations to protect privacy” and cited a large number of prosecutions for those suspected of improperly accessing confidential data.

The free world, meanwhile, is worried about the Chinese government itself as the ultimate example of a sinister force improperly accessing personal data. Numerous publications took the occasion of the Big Data Expo to remind readers that China is collecting a terrifying amount of surveillance data about its citizens and rationing out basic freedoms to “good” citizens only using a new “social credit score.

The prospect of being monitored every moment by 176 million cameras would be unnerving even if there was not abundant reason to suspect the “social credit score” will be fudged by political considerations, giving the authoritarian state a pervasive and coldly impersonal system for punishing dissidents more comprehensively than ever before.

Furthermore, even advocates of the system in China have said it will include exactly the kind of information most people regard as deeply confidential. The system explicitly works by using Big Data as a corrupt instrument of surveillance and control, no matter what assurances to the contrary Chinese tech ministers offer at glitzy trade conventions. Anyone who allows Chinese systems to handle their data is giving the Chinese Communist government power over his life, no matter what country he lives in.

Chinese President Xi Jinping hoped to obscure this reality in a congratulatory letter he wrote to the Big Data Expo, described by the Star Online:

China is implementing a national big data strategy centered on building the country’s strength in cyberspace and nurturing a digital China and smart society, which will aid the transition of the country’s economy from high-speed growth to high-quality development, Xi said.

The president also called for enhanced international exchanges and cooperation in the development of the big data industry. Xi’s remarks came as information technologies are playing an increasingly important role in fuelling economic growth.

In 2017, China’s digital economy accounted for US$4.3tril (RM17.1tril), or 32.9% of the nation’s gross domestic product, according to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology.

Xi’s letter spoke of how information technology will have a “significant and far-reaching impact on social and economic development, state governance and people’s lives.” Beware the truth that under Xi’s philosophy, social and economic development, state governance, and people’s lives are one and the same, with no solid legal barrier between them.

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