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China’s police are hard at work building the largest domestic surveillance network the world has seen. The key is not so much tech as a lack of checks on police power. Hugely invasive networks of scanners and cameras now blanket most Chinese cities.
The police have become the keepers of vast amounts of biometrics and personal data on regular Chinese. They use it to make lists of those they want to track. Often they target the most vulnerable populations. Migrant workers, minorities, petitioners, drug users are all profiled.
The lists power very dark use cases. City police run systems that flag women for prostitution if they check into more than one hotel in a night. Another audits those living in subsidized housing to ensure extra people aren’t staying with them. (Photo: cop w/ facial rec helmet)
The surveillance is far more than just cameras. Cities now have thousands and thousands of fake base stations, WiFi sniffers, and license plate trackers to keep tabs on cars and phones. Facial recognition gates on housing complexes and subways have begun to appear too.
One amazing system we found combined a fake base station (which automatically grabs phone information) with facial recognition powered cameras. The idea was to directly link face info to phone info as people walked by. Below is what the fake base station looks like.
Here’s video of what it looks like in action. The fake base station is easy to miss. Two cameras capture people coming and going. When we asked, no one, not residents and not building management, knew what it did. The police just showed up one day and put it in.
The maker is a company called Zhongdian Hui’an. They were startled when we showed up at their offices asking about the system, though they confirmed it was theirs. Here’s some patents on equipment that uses phone signals to track location and identity.
Phone trackers are everywhere in China. Often they go unnoticed. They’re just small boxes with antennas nestled beneath far more intimidating installations of cameras.
The trackers solve a key problem for police: consolidating data. China’s telcos don’t share location data for mass surveillance w/ local police, mostly out of fear the data will be sold. So police build their own. They can interfere with telco networks, which annoys the telcos.
In Xinjiang, where China has interned 1 million Uighurs, I mapped phone trackers in a neighborhood of Kashgar’s old city. I found 37 devices in a square kilometer of a part of the old city. They guarded every major thoroughfare, and were doubled up at gates. Here’s the map.
See how hard it would be to notice them. This is a WiFi sniffer next to a camera at an open-air food market in Kashgar. Not sure anyone in the video knows it’s attempting to grab their phone information as they stroll by.
Data is also harvested at people’s homes. In Shaoxing a contractor was hired to install facial recognition gates for buildings. People didn’t Iike it. For the old it was hard to use. The young worried about privacy, according to the local party committee (office below).
They were right to be concerned. The company came and collected their biometrics and personal information, and promptly left it all unlocked on the internet. It included Communist Party and marital status, age, ethnicity and times people came and went.
Without knowing that, a rebellion of sorts was brewing when we visited last month. Annoyed at the gates they didn’t ask for, some residents jammed the doors open with plywood and wire.
The Chinese Communist Party’s control over Chinese can look ironclad from afar, but often it’s mediated. A local official told us they did thought work to convince people of the need for the system. Still, as surveillance has crept closer to Chinese doorsteps, concerns grow.
For anyone who thinks Chinese are easily controlled by the CCP, this photo says it all. The doors are propped open. In the middle is the new, now useless, facial recognition system. Above is a notice from local leaders instructing people to respect the new technology.
Still in most cases people don’t understand the technology, and police don’t explain it. Crime and safety are used as an excuse, and many drink that down. The buildout is so overwhelming and unnecessary though, it’s clearly about control.
It’s not close to digital totalitarianism yet, but it reminds me of the earlier days of the Great Firewall. Back then people said the internet couldn’t be controlled. Fifteen years later, its very much tamed in China.
What the police are doing is putting in the ground floor on a system to control reality as tightly as the internet. One that harvests data in the same way and allows for a deeper understanding just about everything about people.
It also attempts to link the internet with reality. China’s internet police are increasingly responding in real time to question people who have said things deemed questionable online. Eventually the goal is to link all online and offline behavior. nytimes.com/2019/01/10/bus…
This buildout is far more important than issues like social credit. While such data is tracked elsewhere, it’s often far more fragmented. Concentrated under the police, the plan is to engineer a social reality forever stable, guided by the Party, under watch of the police.
The world is not always harmonious, and in China attempts to make it so come through intimidation and often crushing social controls. Now that Beijing’s authoritarianism has the help of very average tech, it’s putting a whole new world of totalizing control within reach.
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