Reuters offered a look on Tuesday at how high-tech surveillance techniques developed to monitor the Muslims of Xinjiang province are spreading across the rest of China, all the way to the capital city of Beijing. The account provides a textbook case of surveillance state mission creep, as techniques devised for what the Chinese government described as a unique emergency situation become part of everyday life.
One instrument perfected in the surveillance “laboratory” of Xinjiang is a specialized computer device that allows Chinese police to quickly scan smartphones for “illegal information” during routine encounters with citizens. According to procurement documents viewed by Reuters, such devices are now in high demand in almost every province of China.
Chinese police are now able to pull someone over at a traffic stop or accost a pedestrian on foot, plug the subject’s smartphone into a handheld device, and quickly scan their contact lists, photos, videos, social media posts, and email for “objectionable” material. Data ripped from phones can be uploaded to central storage for later examination. “Electronic investigations” are frequently cited in Chinese courtrooms.
The machines can easily crack the security on many smartphones, although Chinese police are said to have little difficulty persuading most citizens to hand over their passwords. “In China, it’s not wise to refuse,” a Ministry of Industry and Information Technology official told Reuters.
At the annual China International Exhibition on Police Equipment in Beijing last May – which Reuters described as an “arms race for surveillance tech” – vendors claimed their products could crack even late-generation secure smartphones. One sales rep hawked a scanner that supposedly raided the Facebook and Twitter accounts of a suspect charged with “subverting the government,” a claim Facebook and Twitter reps did not deny.
Other surveillance gadgets tested in the captive human laboratory of Xinjiang before rolling out nationwide include “police glasses with built-in facial recognition, cameras that analyze how people walk, drones and artificially-intelligent robots.” The nifty facial recognition sunglasses are still a work in progress, but the technology will surely improve.
Engadget described Xinjiang in a February 2018 article as a sci-fi dystopian surveillance nightmare come true, a place where the authorities monitor civilians on a scale unknown elsewhere in the world, and are conversely capable of rendering the population blind and mute at a moment’s notice:
Today, Xinjiang has both a massive security presence and ubiquitous surveillance technology: facial-recognition cameras; iris and body scanners at checkpoints, gas stations, and government facilities; the collection of DNA samples for a massive database; mandatory apps that monitor messages and data flow on Uyghurs’ smartphones; drones to monitor the borders. While there’s some debate over how advanced the system tying these technologies together is, it’s clear that China’s plan is for a fully integrated system that uses artificial intelligence to rapidly process massive amounts of information for use by the similarly massive numbers of police in convenience stations.
For Uyghurs, it means that wherever they go, whomever they talk to and even whatever they read online are all being monitored by the Chinese government. According to The New York Times, “When Uighurs buy a kitchen knife, their ID data is etched on the blade as a QR code.” BuzzFeed documented stories of family members too scared to speak openly to relatives abroad. And the combination of all of these tools through increasingly powerful AI and data processing means absolute control and little freedom.
Fear of the surveillance state has become a force multiplier in Xinjiang since the people know they have no privacy rights, and they are not certain of what Chinese government surveillance can do.
“The fear is such that even if the surveillance is not complete, people behave as if it is. The technology is being rolled out so quickly,” observed Nicole Morgret of the Uighur Human Rights project.
A Foreign Policy piece on Sunday warned that Chinese surveillance technology is being sold abroad, and there is heavy demand from other authoritarian states.
Zimbabwe, for example, is in the process of purchasing Chinese facial recognition technology. Not only will this give the government of Zimbabwe – which has a “bleak record on human rights,” as Foreign Policy observed – greatly enhanced capabilities to monitor and control its citizens, but Chinese engineers will be able to use the dramatically different racial mix of Zimbabweans to refine their facial recognition technology.
More Chinese A.I. projects are expected to launch across Africa in the coming years, a sales explosion that helped China absorb more of the global investment in artificial intelligence than the United States for the first time in 2017.
There is no need to worry about Chinese surveillance cameras coming to the United States–because they are already here.
A company called Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology, which is 42 percent owned by the Chinese government, manufactures cameras used by police departments, home security systems, and even military bases across America. The U.S. government is now belatedly wondering if those camera systems have cybersecurity weaknesses that could be exploited by hackers or backdoors that could be accessed by Chinese intelligence agencies.
A danger for American and European intelligence analysts to consider is that nowhere in the Western world is there anything like the surveillance laboratory China is running in Xinjiang province. The Chinese can test new systems at will, without concern for the civil liberties of their human lab rats, on a titanic scale.
The research advantage they gain from this testing environment is formidable, and it is producing technology with real-world applications and eager customers around the world, which in turn fuels China’s competitive advantage in artificial intelligence development.