China’s Massive Video Surveillance Network — “Skynet”
Imaging a world where everything you do from meeting your friends to using a public toilet is recorded based on your actions ranging from what you buy to where you go, you are given a score similar to the way you rate an uber drive, if the government believes what you do is socially beneficial the score will increase and if not the score will decrease, if you critique government buy alcohol or play games your score decreases and when your score is low you won’t be allowed to travel, your children will be barred from applying to high school, you will be fired from your job and the best part you will be publically shamed.
This dystopian future is a reality of today’s China. According to “People’s Daily” china’s recognition system has so advanced that it can scan the faces if 1.4 billion Chinese citizens in just a second. After the arrival of internet in china in 1994 it became a very critical channel of communication for Chinese citizens. In a place where speech and access to information were heavily restricted the internet became a medium where people could find uncensored news speak their minds and even organize protests. However as time passed the authorities found a way to block the free flow of information and use the internet for their benefit. Within a decade they built an extensive infrastructure of surveillance combined with cutting edge technologies. With the help of it they tracked those who spoke against the government and they were subsequently arrested or intimidated things under Xi’s Era, when a ruling was made by supreme people’s court in September 2013. According to it a person could face a prison for three years for posting comments that spread rumors and are deemed defamatory by the authorities. Soon the state media revealed that the government had hired more than 2 million individuals as microblog monitors to report on online postings to official sensors. In 2016 a cyber security law was passed which further facilitated state control on the internet. Companies like Alibaba, tencent and baidu were required to censor the prohibited content to reduce the anonymity of people on the internet. They were instructed to ask people real name with proof during registration. During the same period the Chinese government was also working on the project Skynet.
Skynet is a mass surveillance system that was created in 2005 however the government revealed its existence in 2013 when it had already installed a network of 20 million cameras across the country and by 2019 the number increased from 20 million to 200 million, authorities claims that this network allows them to track criminals within minutes and keep the public safe. But the question is who will save the public from the government in the name of fighting terrorism members of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups located in the north west part of china are forced to give biometric data like photo fingerprints, DNA, blood and voice samples. Police then flag certain behaviors growing a beard leaving their house fire a back door or visiting the mosque and those who do such things are red flagged by the system and interrogated by police wrongly accused and put in prison camps. In some cases the authorities have installed surveillance cameras inside the homes of minorities’ communities.
The algorithms used in the surveillance network have become so good that they can detect the number of people in the frame their gender, ethnicity and age in real time. Moreover they can identify the person by their walking style under 50 m distance from the camera. The USA and some other countries also use some of the same technology but their use is limited to track terrorists or drug lords. But Chinese authorities use it to track everybody.
Chinese authorities want a better and efficient surveillance system and companies wants to secure big government contracts. So to get contracts companies is constantly improving their technology ultimately benefitting the government efforts of making mass surveillance more efficient but this is not limited to the camera on the streets your face is scanned in restaurants to give you meal recommendations, you can pay while shopping through face scan and if you want to use toilet paper in public toilets you guessed it your face will be scanned first and then the toilet paper will be dispensed through a machine. Surprisingly according to the “times” the personal data of millions of people on the government servers was unprotected by even basic insecurity measures and they also found that private contractors and middlemen had wide access to personal data collected by the Chinese government.
Coming back to cyber surveillance whatever you do online is being recorded from your financial transactions to messages everything is intercepted by Chinese authorities. Let’s start with We chat. We chat started as a messaging app then it transformed in Chinese facebook and then it added a ride hailing service similar to uber to its platform and then it added banking services to its platform and now you can use it as an id. If you live in china you can file a divorce through this app. This will make your life convenient but at the same time also becomes very convenient to the state security to track you, to combat message interceptions they talk through emojis like — a half fallen rose means someone has arrested, dark moon means going to prison camp. Sun emoji means they are alive.
Now combined cyber surveillance with skynet you get unimaginable power control and over 16% of the population. China calls it as the “ social credit system “. Whatever you do from the moment you go to bed is recorded based on action your social credit system increases or decreases. If you praise government publicly, donate blood, help the poor, engaged in charity work your score increases. If your score is high you get tax breaks, free gyms, preference at hospitals and if you do something that is wrongful by the government the opposite happens. Due to this social credit system people fail to look at the bigger picture as they are constantly busy improving their scores to avail the benefits which come with it the ratings for every Chinese citizen are publicly available and anyone can see them, eradicating their privacy and ruining social life. If you raise your voice against government you score will decrease and other people wouldn’t know why your score is low they might think you are wrong because you did something wrong causing your score low and they want to stay away from you.