China’s surveillance technology


Like most of you who love still and moving images, I was thrilled when the first drones started to come out. The first ones were quite expensive, shaky, and had poor image resolution, but things moved quickly. When I bought the DJI Phantom 2, the drone came equipped with 2K image resolution and superb stabilization—and has improved evermore. 

Soon after I bought my DJI Osmo, I started to realize that something was not quite right (or was it just my imagination?). The app I used for this hand-held stabilized camera suddenly started eating data like a hungry pregnant elephant. And not only that, like many other apps, the DJI GO app asked me to give it access to pretty much everything in my smartphone, but where is this information going and for what purpose?— I thought.

Some people might think that I am a bit paranoid, yet I am not the only one. Some government officials are quite worried about Chinese drones, and just last year, the U.S. government (under Trump’s administration) black-listed DJI and other Chinese companies.

China’s surveillance cameras are everywhere

Another of the black-listed companies is Hikvision, one of the biggest video surveillance companies in the world. It has offices in 20 countries around the world and sells its products in more than 150 countries, including the U.S. and Great Britain. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) stated that Hikvision and its services “pose an unacceptable risk to U.S. national security.” 

The most worrying thing is that these cameras are being installed in government buildings and even airports. Britain has already expressed concern, and recently, AENA, the airport operator in Spain, acquired 175 cameras for a dozen airports, including Madrid-Barajas and El Prat in Barcelona. 

Hikvision surveillance camera
Hikvision surveillance camera

Hikvision belongs to China Electronics Technology Group Ltd (CETC), one of the most prominent military-industrial groups, and the largest defense contractor in China. The enterprise is pretty much run by the state and is supervised by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council. The Chinese CCTV manufacturer is part of China’s Skynet surveillance system, which has installed more than 800 million cameras and is expected to reach 1 billion by the end of 2021.

And these cameras are not ordinary ones: they come equipped with face recognition and big data analysis. They can even recognize people wearing masks through their gait-recognition software, as Ross Andersen states in the Panopticon Is Already Here

“SenseTime, which helped build Xinjiang’s surveillance state, recently bragged that its software can identify people wearing masks. Another company, Hanwang, claims that its facial-recognition technology can recognize mask wearers 95 percent of the time. China’s personal-data harvest even reaps from citizens who lack phones. Out in the countryside, villagers line up to have their faces scanned, from multiple angles, by private firms in exchange for cookware.”

Censuses are a thing of the past

The Chinese government likes data—they love it. They are thrilled with fingerprints and DNA data, but even more, they love faces. That is why every Chinese citizen needs to have their face scanned to buy a smartphone. Soon the Chinese government will have every inch of their bodies analyzed and stored in their system.

To fulfill this total-control vision, China relies on several artificial intelligence and technology companies (many of them start-ups). The most prominent AI companies in China are (see Top 10 Chinese AI Companies for more information):

  • SenseTime (facial recognition and data analysis)
  • CloudWalk (facial recognition)
  • Megvii (image recognition and deep learning)
  • Hikvision (video surveillance)
  • Yitu Technologies (deep learning and data analysis)
  • iFlytek (voice recognition)
  • Meiya Pico (Cybersecurity, digital forensics, drones)
  • ByteDance (Tik Tok developer)
  • Dahua Technology (video surveillance)
  • Tencent (technology conglomerate; WeChat, QQ)

Chinese espionage goes beyond the use of video surveillance. While CCTVs can monitor people outside or inside public buildings, little can these cameras do at home. That is where smartphone surveillance comes in. 

It used to be that homes were the only safe place (with many risks attached) where someone could practice their religion or express their views, but that has changed. For example, WeChat, China’s most famous app, is monitored by the Chinese Internet Police, and all messages are stored by the technology giant Tencent.

Along comes Covid

With the emergence of Covid-19, China passed the Health Code app, which was installed inside Tencent’s WeChat (covering almost 900 million users). It could also be used with Alipay’s applications. 

The Health Code app has colors assigned to it. Green means you are healthy, while yellow or red tell you—and the government— that you might have been exposed to the virus and could be quarantined or put under house arrest (and when we mean house arrest, we mean house arrest).

Some people suggest that the Health Code is not the same as the Green Pass or Health Pass used in other countries in Asia, Europe, or North America. Here is not the place to debate this, but it should, at least, worry us that we are implementing a thing that resembles such a thing. The Health Pass might not keep, for now, as much information as the Health Code (since every phone in China is linked to the holder’s ID), but we forget that what’s at stake here is not just how much information the government can take from you or how they can use it, but what matters is how much freedom they are taking away from an individual who just happens to think differently.

And it seems that the Health Pass is not the only thing being exported from China—besides surveillance cameras and drones. I’ve noticed how, in recent years, Europe has been adapting something like the Chinese Social Credit System—by which citizens are awarded or punished by their allegiance to the system. China’s social credit system is not new, but with the rise of technology and artificial intelligence, the government now has better and more control over the population. 

The Chinese Social Credit System works far better than anything Orwell could have predicted. Now, with the help of voice and face recognition, geolocation, smartphone data collection, and public transportation data, they can know what you said, where you said it, and to whom you said it, besides knowing your exact allegiance to the party. 

You didn’t clap enough in one of Xi Jinping’s speeches sponsored by Tencent? Then, “No soup for you!” Do you want to recover your trust? No worries, just donate to a government-sponsored charity and your points go up. Of course, don’t even think of attending a church or being friends with a Christian if you want good scores.

The EU alleges that it’s working on regulating the use of AI to prevent bias and discrimination, as well as a Social Credit System. However, these new regulations will probably not affect surveillance for law enforcement. Of course, it will neither affect the European Health System and their Health Pass, which has already discriminated against millions of people.

Not too long ago, I received a letter from the ministry of transportation in Spain. I was surprised to find out that there were, not one but two speeding “tickets” inside. It seemed to me strange that the radar had recorded the infraction at the same location and time of day. But the strangest thing was that I did not receive a fine (as in previous times) but rather they had taken points from me. 

Do you see where I’m going? You might think that it’s too far-fetched to compare it with the Chinese Social Credit System, but the European Point System is already working in many areas. For example, Social Security can also take points from someone that is unemployed and doesn’t want to take a particular course offered by the same entity. And now we have the Health System black-listing people that don’t comply with their iron fist authority. Yes, this might be far away from the Chinese Social Credit system, but if we start putting all the dots together (and there are many more), one starts to wonder if we are not underway.


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