Fiction becomes fact once more convincing evidence emerges that China has indeed developed the technology to make the “Big Brother” type surveillance state a reality. The evidence was found by accident In February 2017 when a Dutch Internet security researcher found an unprotected (by password or encryption) database of live data being collected by a Chinese facial recognition network in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. The researcher found other such databases and realized he had stumbled across more evidence that Chinese facial recognition technology was indeed being successfully implemented on a large scale. These databases belonged to a commercial Chinese firm, SenseNets, which provides facial recognition and other tracking technology for commercial and security use. The Dutch researcher reported the situation to SenseNets, which promptly blocked access from anyone outside of China.
SenseNets describes itself as an AI (Artificial Intelligence) firm that not only develops reliable facial recognition systems but also analysis software to interpret patterns in the billions of data points it collects. The databases uncovered were part of the surveillance and tracking system in Xinjiang.
This surveillance network consists of thousands of vidcams found on streets as well as even more in businesses and government facilities tracks everyone who passes by (and can, in theory, deduce who is trying to hide their face in an area.) It turns out there are hundreds of these database systems used in Xinjiang to track its 2.6 million residents, about half of them Moslem and a million of those Moslems have been punished, usually by weeks or months in “reeducation” camps to impress on them that they are being watched and those who misbehave will be detected, identified and punished.
The fact that such databases were unprotected is no surprise as Internet security for Chinese commercial firms, and many government operations has long been among the worst of any major industrial nation. That was the result of China tolerating the widespread use of pirated copies of the Windows operating system. Back before security updates became automatic for Windows, installing such updates on pirated copies was not popular with Chinese users because it put them at risk of having their operating system shut down. That forced the user to go through the hassle of obtaining and installing a new copy of the pirated version. The government has made an effort to address this problem by switching over to a Chinese version of Linux but that has not been entirely successful and sloppy Internet security habits are still a problem. In any event, SenseNets did not appear concerned about bad publicity from this sloppy database security being exposed because it was good advertising for them. It demonstrated to the world that their facial recognition did work. Such tech was also widely used by Chinese payment systems to allow users to quickly and securely pay for purchases instead of using a credit card or cash.
The SenseNets operation in Xinjiang demonstrated that the facial recognition system was regularly tracking the adult population 24/7 as they went about their business and noted when it was illegal (or possibly legal) business and notified the police. The public tracking system has been under construction for several years and China plans to eventually implement it nationwide. In part, this is because Chinese governments tend to take the long view and by the late 1990s, the government had prepared itself for a long (several decades or more) struggle to regain control over the angry Moslem population of Xinjiang. The existing Chinese media control (censorship) effort eventually evolved into a huge data monitoring and data collection system. In the last few years, as their facial recognition via a growing network of high-resolution video cameras became a proven technology, it led quickly to the creation of a SCR (Social Credit Rating) system in which all the accumulated data on an individual can be analyzed to determine which patterns of behavior lead to criminal or anti-government behavior. China needed someplace to test all these new technologies together and over the last few years, China has used Xinjiang province, and its large Moslem minority, as the test site. In Xinjiang, China is discovering how well this cell phone, Internet and public (captured via vidcams) behavior and other forms of population monitoring can be used to exercise more control over large populations. It turns out that the degree of control (or at least personal information) is substantial.
Because of the Xinjiang experience, the imagined police state described in the 1949 novel “1984” has quietly become a reality in China. While the SCR is near-total in Xinjiang province portions of it are already used nationwide. Over the last decade, China has built the words’ largest and most effective monitoring and censorship network. First, it was applied to text messages on the new cell phone networks and then, when the Internet became widely available in China during the late 1990s, to the more powerful Internet-based communications. China soon developed methods for influencing as well as controlling what people learned on the Internet.
Russia had tried to do this before the Internet and had developed some new techniques for quietly influencing mass media it did not control. The Chinese had inherited these techniques from the Russians and perfected them using the Internet and other new technologies. In the West, the same techniques came to be used at the major Internet communications companies (Facebook and Google) who were under public pressure to censor objectionable material and discussions. Unlike in China, where the government gets to decide what is politically correct, in the West conflicting opinions are supposed to coexist (“free speech”) and evolve. But because of the centralized control over communications made possible by the media major information providers like Facebook and Google could and did take sides.
The progress of all this is not a secret. By late 2018 the Chinese government boasted that nationwide fifteen million people have been banned from flying or riding the high-speed trains because of their low SCR. Chinese are beginning to understand that low SCR has major consequences. Low SCR makes it more difficult to get a good job, a bank loan or a passport. SCR scores depend on what the government sees, hears or reads via that growing network of sensors and informants.
The government expects to have the Big Brother type monitoring and SCR systems operating nationwide by the early 2020s. Already local officials are finding SCR a useful tool in many different ways. Xinjiang province was the laboratory in which it was discovered what works and what does not. For example, Xinjiang factory workers who refuse to accept harsh working conditions and no pay increases can be assigned a low SCR and then told they must either improve their attitude towards bad working conditions or go to a reeducation camp for a while, perhaps a long while if they refuse to behave as ordered. Many Chinese have no problem with SCR and see it as an opportunity. One reason for that, which the government does not like to talk about, or even acknowledge, is that SCR has already been corrupted. Local officials and police have a lot of discretion in deciding which behavior is likely to lower an SCR. In other words, some well-placed or well-timed bribes can keep your SCR healthy. The government is aware of this but knows that despite the vulnerability to bribery the SCR is still a powerful tool for monitoring and controlling the population. For example, one way of boosting your SCR, and making some legal money (although usually less than $50 a month) is to agree to work for the secret police as a local informer. In some parts of the country, like the capital, there are a lot of these paid informants. In central Beijing, where nearly four million people live and even more work or pass through, about three percent of the locals are paid informants. That is in addition to the extensive network of security cameras and extensive surveillance carried out on the Internet. Exactly how the population will react to extensive and sustained use of SCR is an unknown. But at this point, we are beginning to find out, especially in Xinjiang province and some of the major cities. The cost of building and operating the SCR system is one reason why China spends more on internal security (secret police, riot police, coast guard and so on) than they do on the defense budget.
While China appreciated that development, many in the West did not and now there are fears that the fictional “1984” type information control has become a reality everywhere, not just in dictatorships like China and police states like Russia. As this recent SenseNets databases incident demonstrated, the 1984 fiction has become fact for a growing number of Chinese. Firms like SenseNets offer these systems for sale to foreign customers, both commercial and government.