China's New Security Technology

Fact and Fiction

In recent years, US media has run numerous reports about the Chinese government’s application of new technologies, particularly around mass surveillance and the “social credit system.” What many of these reports overlook, however, is that these systems are still in their infancy. While they certainly pose the possibility of a future dystopia, says RANE expert Wilson VornDick, they have a long way to go.

The Chinese technology behind its mass surveillance and social credit systems is not currently capable of what many Western reports suggest, says VornDick. This is largely because these reports use Chinese government and government-owned outlet reporting as their sources. Instead, mass surveillance in the “Skynet” and “Sharp Eyes” systems, as well as the social credit system, are still being piloted, according to VornDick.

  • Skynet and SharpEyes employ more than 20 million surveillance cameras throughout China to monitor the population. Skynet aggregates the data collected into a database that security officials use to track and hunt criminals, while SharpEyes relies on various surveillance technologies and has been utilized for public denunciations of those who have committed offenses that do not reach a criminal level.
  • While there is no reliable information on where exactly Skynet has been deployed, the government-owned Global Times, which has an interest in inflating the technology’s application, claims it is in use across sixteen “provinces, cities, and municipalities.” Despite these statements, Skynet's range is not as extensive as claimed. Though the Global Times says it can scan the entire Chinese population in one second, Xie Yinan, Vice President of Chinese facial recognition technology firm Megvii, says the system can only scan 1,000 faces at a time.
  • The social credit system is designed to coerce behavior from citizens and businesses by giving them a score based on their social, legal, and financial standing. A good score can lead to lower interest rates, while a poor score can block people from purchasing plane or train tickets, among other things.
  • The social credit system is also still in its infancy. The 2014 Plan for Establishing a Social Credit System only calls for the planning phase to be complete by 2020. Currently, there is not even a national system; individual municipalities have launched their own systems, sometimes still using physical paper for records. Private companies have also begun collecting data that could eventually be pulled into a national system. Currently, though, there is no nationally-coordinated system and the pilots that exist collect different information and function in different ways.

One area where the system is being fully implemented and warrants attention is in province of Xinjiang. Here, says VornDick, is one of the few clear examples of the government using the technology for nefarious purposes.

  • US and European media have attempted to focus international attention on the technological prison the Chinese government has constructed in Xinjiang, home to China’s ethnic Uighur population. VornDick argues that the government’s active and draconian use of technology against its Muslim minority fuels American popular fears of large-scale government-backed technological intrusion into private lives.
  • VornDick notes that Xinjiang is likely a test case for the Chinese government. The technology has been only introduced in limited applications in primarily ethnic Han areas like Beijing and Shanghai, showing that the government is indeed intent on phasing in some of these systems in politically and economically important areas.

Ultimately, it may not matter that the technology is not as widespread or as effective as reported. VornDick says the goal of the technology is greater government control over society, and, on that count, the surveillance and credit systems are already succeeding.

  • The Chinese government, says VornDick, presents the surveillance systems as benefitting the social good. For instance, when police demonstrated the surveillance system to a BBC reporter, Chinese media exuberantly declared that it only took the police seven minutes to “catch” the reporter, despite his ten-minute head start. Many Chinese netizens expressed concern.
  • There are conflicting opinions on whether the Chinese public accepts the government’s arguments. Baidu CEO Robin Li caused online outrage when he said that Chinese people are happy to trade privacy for convenience. Public concern over privacy has even prompted the government to take multiple actions to protect individuals from business intrusion.
  • Regardless of how the public feels, the Chinese government is increasingly incentivizing its citizens to accept Beijing's intrusion into their private lives. Efforts that have been made in past authoritarian crackdowns are increasingly possible using modern technological and social incentives.

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