China moves towards ‘digital totalitarian state’; advances surveillance technology


With a population of nearly 1.4 billion people, China’s ability to spy on its citizenry is ramping up to new and disturbing levels, and it’s example is being copied by nations that wanted to build a digital totalitarian state.

Surveillance activities are done by combining together old and state-of-the-art technologies — phone scanners, facial-recognition cameras, face and fingerprint databases and many others — into extensive 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 the police grab the identities of people as they walk down the street, find out who they are meeting with and identify who does and does not 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 the authorities stored the personal data of millions of people on servers unprotected by even basic security measures. It also found private contractors and middlemen have wide access to personal data collected by the Chinese government.

This surveillance push is empowering China’s police, who have taken a greater role under president Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader. It gives them a potent way to track criminals as well as online malcontents, sympathisers of the protest movement in Hong Kong, critics of the police themselves and other undesirables.

It often targets vulnerable groups like migrant workers — those who stream in from the countryside to fill China’s factories — and ethnic minority groups like the largely Muslim Uighurs on China’s western frontier.

“Each person’s data forms a trail,” said Agnes Ouyang, a technology worker in the southern city of Shenzhen whose attempts to raise awareness about privacy drew scrutiny from the authorities. “It can be used by the government and it can be used by bosses at the big companies to track us. Our lives are worth about as much as dirt.”

The police arrived one day in April to a dingy apartment complex in Zhengzhou, an industrial city in central China. Over three days, they installed four cameras and two small white boxes at the gates of the complex, which hosts cheap hotels and fly-by-night businesses.

Once activated, the system began to sniff for personal data. The boxes — phone scanners called IMSI catchers and widely used in the West — collected identification codes from mobile phones. The cameras recorded faces.

On the back end, the system attempted to tie the data together, an examination of its underlying database showed. If a face and a phone appeared at the same place and time, the system grew more confident they belonged to the same person.

Over four days in April, the boxes identified more than 67,000 phones. The cameras captured more than 23,000 images, from which about 8,700 unique faces were derived. Combining the disparate data sets, the system matched about 3,000 phones with faces, with varying degrees of confidence.

This single system is part of a citywide surveillance network encompassing license plates, phone numbers, faces and social media information, according to a Zhengzhou Public Security Bureau database.

Other Chinese cities are copying Zhengzhou. Since 2017, government procurement documents and official reports show police in the Chinese provinces of Guizhou, Zhejiang and Henan have bought similar systems. The police in Zigong, a mid-size city in Sichuan province, bought 156 sets of the technology, the documents show.

Even for China’s police, who enjoy broad powers to question and detain people, this level of control is unprecedented. Tracking people so closely once required cooperation from uncooperative institutions in Beijing. The state-run phone companies, for example, are often reluctant to share sensitive or lucrative data with local authorities, said people with knowledge of the system.

Now local police are buying their own trackers. Improved technology helps them share it up the chain of command, to the central Ministry of Public Security in Beijing, the people said.

The surveillance networks fulfil a long time goal of ensuring social stability; dating to the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising but given added urgency by the Arab Spring protests in 2011 and 2012. In recent years, Chinese police made use of fears of unrest to win more power and resources.

It is not clear how well the police are using their new capabilities, or just how effective they might be. But the potential is there.

Online data leakage is a major problem in China. Local media reports describe how people with access to the data sell private details to fraudsters, suspicious spouses and anyone else, sometimes for just a few dollars per person. Leaks have become severe enough that the police created their own company to handle data directly, skirting third-party systems.

A wide number of people and companies have access to the data underlying China’s mandatory identification card system through legitimate means. Companies with police connections use faces from ID cards to train facial-recognition systems. The card system also tracks fingerprints, faces, ethnicity and age.

High-tech surveillance is reshaping Chinese life in ways small and profound. The Communist Party has long ruled supreme, and the country lacks a strong court system or other checks against government overreach. But outside the realm of politics, Chinese life could be freewheeling and chaotic thanks to lax enforcement or indifferent officials.

Those days may be coming to an end. In the realms of consumer safety and the environment, that could make life better. But it has given the police new powers to control the people.

Chinese police now boast that facial-recognition systems regularly catch crooks. At a tourist island in the picturesque port city of Xiamen, authorities say they use facial recognition to catch unlicensed tour guides. Shanghai police have begun using helmets with a camera embedded in the front. Databases and procurement documents also show they search out the mentally ill, people with a history of drug use or government gadflies.

Some new claims are outlandish, such as software that claims to read emotion and criminal intent from a face. But the surveillance net that the police have rolled out in Xinjiang, a region of northwestern China that is home to many predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, shows the vast potential for the rest of the country. (Source: NY Times/Independent UK)