China moves into “Minority Report” territory with its latest surveillance project aimed at identifying citizen threats before they strike.
In addition to new antiterrorism legislation that took effect on Jan. 1, extending the government’s legal reach over the Internet, Beijing has since tasked state-owned defense contractor China Electronics Technology Group to develop “predictive policing” software.
The project is said to involve the cross-referencing of individual online activities — such as banking, buying patterns, pastimes, habits and other behavioural data, as well as footage from surveillance cameras — in order to flag anything unusual that might indicate a person was plotting an illegal action or “terrorist” act.
Bloomberg.com reports China’s new big data platform — downplayed as a “unified information environment” — is expected to alert authorities to individual activities such as “a resident of a poor village who suddenly has a lot of money in her bank account or someone with no overseas relatives who makes frequent calls to foreigners”. Once a suspect has been identified, bank accounts can be frozen and communication records obtained from telecommunication companies under the country’s new counter-terrorism law, which states that “operators of telecommunications and Internet services should offer technological assistance and cooperation with security departments to help prevent and investigate terrorist activities.”
The “pre-crime” concept is one moviegoers will recognize from the 2002 Steven Spielberg tech-noir thriller, “Minority Report,” in which a special police unit is able to arrest murderers before they commit their crimes. Although, China’s real-world version is new in scope, digital monitoring is not and represents a trend on the rise worldwide.
For the fifth year in a row, the Freedom House global survey of civil liberties and political rights has found that Internet freedom around the world is in decline and that governments in 14 of 65 countries assessed have passed new laws increasing surveillance since June 2014 and that many more have upgraded their surveillance equipment. Restriction or deletion of web content dealing with political, religious or social issues continues to grow, and arrests and intimidation for sharing information concerning politics, religion or society through digital networks has escalated in 40 of 65 countries. Freedom House reports democracies and authoritarian regimes alike stigmatize encryption as an instrument of terrorism, and many have tried to ban or limit tools that protect privacy.
China’s ramped up effort to ensure social stability, however, is described as “unprecedented” given the country’s lack of privacy protection laws and minimal pushback from civil liberty advocates and business, reports Bloomberg.com. Nevertheless, resistance to President Xi’s renewed focus earlier this year on the country’s state media — and his demand that party mouthpieces be “surnamed party” (an official campaign to get all media to toe the party line) — produced both a public backlash, that was then censored, and various challenges by media outlets, including individual members of state media, to directives to remove content deemed “illegal” by authorities and criticism of tightening controls on speech and public discourse.
“China’s New Age of Fear”
Last month, Foreign Policy magazine’s ChinaFile explored the escalation of disappearances, televised confessions, stepped-up surveillance and the detention of human rights lawyers under Xi in a think piece called, “China’s New Age of Fear” — a reference to a recent essay by political scientist Minxin Pei who used the phrase, “rule of fear” to describe the aforementioned events as a “revival of totalitarian scare tactics.” China, says Pei, is “once again gripped by fear in a way it has not been since the era of Mao Zedong.”
A post by legal scholar Eva Pils, reprinted by ChinaFile, noted that a new wave of ideology reminiscent of Mao was signalled as early as 2013 with the leak of an internal Party document urging Party leadership to guard against seven political “perils,” including constitutionalism, civil society, “nihilistic” views of history, “universal values,” and the promotion of “the West’s view of media.” Under Xi, that shift has become more pronounced, she writes, along with legislative changes, such as the Draft Foreign NGO Management Law that treats “foreign civil society organizations as, in principle, suspect and potentially subversive.” Such changes, she says, “have allowed rule by fear techniques to play a more and more prominent role, and to be applied in a more and more open manner.” Whereas, once, forced disappearances of persons of interest would be handled with more stealth by authorities, says Pils, they “have now effectively become part of the system” and are carried out “‘in accordance with law.'”
Another expert drawn on by ChinaFile, Taisu Zhang, an Associate Professor at Duke University School of Law, questioned the usefulness of terms like “fear” and “terror” to describe government policies that have “up to now, been concentrated on some fairly specific groups, arguably none of which an average college-educated Chinese readily identifies with.” Zhang writes:
Perhaps because government censorship has been fairly effective, perhaps because of the Great Firewall, or perhaps because China’s educated population is considerably more nationalist than the outside world seems to realize, the things that have recently sent many Western observers into a state of alarm likely do not affect their lives. This can easily change, but maybe we should wait until it actually does to declare that China is “once again gripped by fear.”
In the wake of the US spy programme scandal in 2013, based on information leaked to media by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, the US, a long-time critic of China’s human rights record, faced its own Big Brother expose. The fallout prompted Steven Mazie, a political studies professor and Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist, to compare the US and China and their approach to surveillance given the similar size and complexity of their surveillance apparatus.
According to Mazie, the two approaches are “fundamentally different in nature”. Checks and balances in the US democratic security model provided some measure of accountability that was largely missing in China’s authoritarian surveillance model, he said, adding that the latter took an “expansive catch-all view of what constitutes a threat that covers anything the authorities deem to challenge their authority.” In China, he said, there were “few, if any, limits on the state’s powers to intrude on its citizenry.” For Mazie, the test going forward lay in how effective the US constitutional system and democratic culture would remain in “keeping the American version from slipping into Chinese mode.” [See: Surveillance Smackdown: China vs. United States]
1 Predictive policing is not confined to science fiction and was first developed in the nineties by then New York City transit police officer Jack Maple. Maple created a subway crime mapping system aimed at more intelligently deploying officers to trouble spots by tracking crime through pins stuck in maps, known as Charts of the Future. That approach lay the groundwork for what would become CompStat, short for Computer Statistics, a community-based policing system that uses data to extrapolate crime trends. Its use coincided with a significant decline in crime when it was launched in New York City, although it is not without its controversies, such as vulnerability to data manipulation.