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Chinese Surveillance Technology Expands at Home and Abroad
Chinese Surveillance Technology Expands at Home and Abroad

Chinese Surveillance Technology Expands at Home and Abroad

Government surveillance is a ubiquitous and growing phenomenon in China. New documents issued by the Ministry of State Security last month will empower Chinese law enforcement to search electronic devices without either a warrant or an ongoing criminal investigation. Last week, Conor Healy from the news website IPVM reported on developments related to a government project that would dramatically increase state surveillance capacity in Shanghai’s Xuhui District, a central, bustling area that includes the former French Concession:

A sweeping mass surveillance expansion underway in central Shanghai will triple facial recognition cameras, and increase computing infrastructure by several times to power “the mining of massive data” across files for 50+ million citizens’ everyday activities and behavior.

[…] To increase data collection, Xuhui District will install 2,500 additional new facial recognition cameras, tripling its current number. Authorities estimate they will capture and analyze 25.9 million faces daily, an average of 18,860 individuals each minute. This comes out to 175 cameras per square mile across the 21 sq mile District.

A crucial feature requires every face captured to be matched to the correct “file for each person” and stored for “big data” analysis. The system will check them against Shanghai’s “municipal bureau library” with files on over 50 million people, expected to increase to 64 million with “new data added every day.”

Unknown individuals and their facial characteristics are flagged, and authorities can conduct filtered searches by features including “gender, age group, and Uyghur ethnicity” in order to “facilitate finding specific types of passersby.” [Source]

CDT’s Cloud Cover report on Police Geographic Information Systems (PGIS)—technology used to enhance state surveillance capacity—found that government bodies in Shanghai procured 32 PGIS contracts worth a total of over 242 million RMB between 2015 and 2021. The vast majority of this spending occurred between 2020 and 2021, and three of these contracts solicited “smart technology.”

In addition to local residents, those targeted by state surveillance include foreign journalists. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC)’s annual report, published last month, found that for the first time, respondents told the FCCC of authorities using drones to monitor them in the field. A majority of respondents also believed that authorities had possibly or definitely compromised their WeChat accounts (81%), their phones (72%), and/or placed audio recording bugs in their offices or homes (55%). In 2021, Reuters reported that Henan authorities had planned a surveillance system specifically designed to track journalists and foreign students, using 3,000 facial recognition cameras connected to various databases.

However, government-affiliated surveillance measures have ostensibly receded in other areas. This is partially in response to fears of declining tourism figures and Chinese society’s mixed views on privacy. Sun Yanran, Zhao Wei, and Ding Yi from Caixin reported that some hotels have limited the use of facial recognition technology for guest check-ins, although reports show that these surveillance measures are still in place in Shanghai and Xinjiang, among other locations:

Hotels in Chinese cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hangzhou have been ordered by local authorities to stop scanning guests’ faces for check-in, Caixin has learned, as the government steps up protection of personal data amid growing use of facial recognition technology.

A majority of the hotels contacted by Caixin said that they received notices in late March or early April from local police departments requiring them to let guests check in without using facial recognition, while some said that they had been asked to do so as early as 2023 — after Beijing lifted its “zero-Covid” policy. [Source]

Meanwhile, Chinese surveillance technology has been spreading to other regions of the globe. RFE/RL published an investigation last week showing that Central and Eastern European countries have purchased millions of Chinese-made surveillance cameras that have security vulnerabilities and manufacturing ties to the Chinese state:

Central and Eastern European countries have purchased millions of Chinese-made surveillance cameras over the last five years, despite the devices’ security vulnerabilities and the manufacturers’ lax data practices and ties to the Chinese state, an RFE/RL survey of nine countries shows.

RFE/RL’s reporting reveals the growing use of Chinese-made cameras in countries that are either EU and NATO members or aspiring to join, and where budget conscious governments are increasingly turning to affordable and state-subsidized Chinese companies.

While public national databases for surveillance cameras do not exist for most countries, available data and reporting by RFE/RL shows Dahua and Hikvision — two partially state-owned Chinese companies that are among the world’s leading providers of closed-circuit television and surveillance systems — dominating markets in Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Bulgaria, and Georgia.

“The biggest distinction between these [Chinese firms] and others is that other companies don’t have such an extensive and critical catalogue of vulnerabilities to exploit,” Conor Healy, the director of government research at IPVM, a surveillance-industry research firm, told RFE/RL. “Fundamentally security is about planning for hypothetical threats, and governments and national security organizations need to be focused on this.” [Source]

Similar trends are occurring in North Korea, where authorities have placed surveillance cameras in schools and workplaces and collected fingerprints, photographs, and other biometric data from its citizens, as the AP recently reported. The state’s digital surveillance tools are a combination of equipment imported from China and software developed domestically. On Tuesday, Park Chan-kyong from the South China Morning Post described how North Korea relies on Chinese surveillance technology to limit the freedom and rights of its citizens:

Heavy reliance on Chinese surveillance technology has allowed North Korea to keep its population under tight control and make illegal border crossings difficult, as the isolated country expands digital transformation aimed at controlling “various facets of public and private life”.

Experts say North Korea is also setting up a fourth-generation mobile telecoms network to boost its remote online monitoring capabilities while maintaining “highly effective” human-level analogue watch.

[…] The North is putting a lot of resources and efforts into developing technology and algorithms for surveillance but it “overly relies on imported Chinese technology” for devices including mobile handsets and security cameras, [Martyn Williams, senior fellow at Pyongyang-focused Stimson Centre and long-time North Korea researcher,] told journalists at a press meet in Seoul on Monday. [Source]

Last month, ARTICLE 19 published “The Digital Silk Road: China and the rise of digital repression in the Indo-Pacific,” a report that examines China’s digital infrastructure and governance influence in Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal, and Thailand. The report highlights how Chinese manufacturers of surveillance technology and China-related surveillance policies have assisted other authoritarian governments in restricting basic freedoms:

“This report shows that dual infrastructure and policy support from China, in the hands of authoritarian states, has contributed to increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and information, the right to privacy, and other acts of digital repression,” [said Michael Caster, Asia Digital Programme Manager at ARTICLE 19].

[…] Chinese national tech champions, including Huawei, ZTE and Alibaba, have been at the forefront of the Digital Silk Road partnerships, and related development assistance projects. The companies, effectively proxies for the Chinese Communist Party priorities, have become the leading technology infrastructure providers in the region, especially when it comes to 5G, submarine fibre-optic cables and satellite systems. 

The report highlights the multiple concerns this dominance poses for human rights, including freedom of expression and information, and the right to privacy. In that, it echoes the concerns of local civil society in the region, who fear that, in the hands of authoritarian states, the infrastructure built by Chinese companies can support policy changes to exert greater control over the internet, through mass data gathering, surveillance and censorship. [Source]