China’s COVID Surveillance State and Its Western Imitators - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
China’s COVID Surveillance State and Its Western Imitators
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Surveillance cameras outside the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, June 26, 2020 (WillMillerChina/Shutterstock)

When the dust finally settles and we look back on the COVID-19 pandemic as a matter of history, we may well conclude that the most consequential aspect of the ordeal was not the pandemic itself but rather the explosion in state power, mass data collection, and surveillance that the pandemic incubated.

Much like the First World War had served as a seismic outpouring of the cumulative advances in warfare that had quietly taken place since the fall of the French Empire in 1870, so has COVID-19 allowed many governments in developed nations to realize decades of advancements in data surveillance.

The High-Tech Panopticon

The modern surveillance state has many antecedents, but certainly the most important at this moment is the Chinese government. The growth of China into the world’s “surveillance superpower” can be traced back to at least 1997, when the country first implemented controls on the newly introduced internet. Since then, Communist Party technocrats have labored to turn their society into a closed system in which every inch is surveilled and nothing enters or leaves without official sanction.

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The goal, in short, is the construction of a sort of gigantic, nation-spanning panopticon — a system of surveillance first proposed by the eighteenth-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham as a “humane” format for prisons. Such a system, which Bentham envisioned as a circular, hollow multi-story building, would allow a single guard stationed in the center to have a full view of every room in the structure. Constantly monitoring every room would be unnecessary even if it were possible, argued Bentham: the mere credible threat of surveillance is sufficient to deter bad behavior.

Thankfully, no government has yet forced this level of transparency on the lives of its citizens (though some, such as North Korea, clearly would love the opportunity). But the Communist Party of China is certainly pushing the envelope. Beijing possesses the world’s most sophisticated system of integrated and overlapping methods of mass observation and data collection.

This was not a preordained path. When the cornerstone of China’s surveillance apparatus, a camera network called Skynet — yes, named after the genocidal AI antagonist of the Terminator movies — was launched in 2005, the average Chinese person was about as rich as the average North Korean. Only 8 percent were internet users. Beijing decided that China’s growth would take place within the confines of a surveillance state that would grow alongside it.

As of today, Skynet is the world’s largest camera network, and probably the most technologically advanced. In 2013, when the program was first publicly revealed, it already boasted twenty million cameras. As of 2021, China has around one billion cameras, around half of which are integrated into Skynet. Compare that figure to around eighty-five million cameras in the United States, most of which are privately owned.

Even so, Skynet is merely the biggest tool in Beijing’s toolbox, and not even its most advanced. Indeed, it is hard at work on an even more comprehensive successor system: Sharp Eyes, officially launched in 2015.

The project seeks “100% video surveillance coverage in key public areas and major industries” and better penetration into rural regions. Most notably, it intends to connect China’s public surveillance camera network with its many millions of private cameras. The end goal is likely one billion or more cameras feeding into centralized databases equipped with facial recognition and AI technology. No other polity has even attempted this kind of public-private surveillance integration, let alone on this scale.

Another area where Beijing seeks total penetration of surveillance is the internet. It should not surprise anyone to know that online anonymity does not exist for the average Chinese netizen. Every social media and gaming platform that Beijing is able to regulate enforces a policy of demasking its users, requiring ID for registration and mandating the use of real names rather than usernames or pseudonyms.

WeChat, a do-everything app with over 1.2 billion active users, is often regarded as the world’s least secure major social media platform. The product of a publicly traded company, its level of information integration with government censors is unknown. But the absence of live state surveillance does not mean no surveillance at all: the app has admitted to hoarding user messages, including supposedly deleted messages, as well as geolocation data. There is little doubt that this information is freely handed over whenever Beijing demands it.

But state meddling hardly matters in WeChat’s case. Much like Western social media, Chinese social media engages in enthusiastic self-censorship. They contract this work out to giant “censorship factories,” which hire recent college graduates with no better prospects and make them sift through thousands of social media posts per day, looking for references to government officials and sensitive historical events.

Of all of China’s surveillance initiatives, however, perhaps none will be as consequential as its push to expunge all privacy from the financial system. The digital yuan, a state-controlled digital currency that is being publicly tested with more than two hundred million users, is slated to eventually replace all physical and digital cash alternatives.

Such a system would give the People’s Bank of China unfettered access to the time, location, and nature of every transaction that occurs in the country. Granular surveillance of such a volume of data would be impossible, of course. But, as in Bentham’s panopticon, the point is the threat of surveillance.

A Contagious Policy 

COVID-19 wasn’t the only thing taking the world by storm during the pandemic. At home, China swiftly adapted its existing surveillance system into what became the world’s toughest biosecurity membrane. Abroad, it solidified its position as the world’s premier surveillance exporter, in terms of both technology and policy.

Many developed democracies, following Beijing’s lead, introduced unprecedented levels of mass surveillance in the name of public health.

By April 2020, when the “first wave” of COVID-19 was cresting in many parts of the world and public health authorities were scrambling for solutions, China had deployed a nationwide, color-coded virtual health monitoring app to control the movement of its citizens.

Beijing possesses the world’s most sophisticated system of integrated and overlapping methods of mass observation and data collection.

This procedure was particularly intrusive in its identity verification requirements, encouraging users to submit biometric selfies on a nightly basis. Its stated purpose was the bulk collection of health data from civilians — and the restriction of movement for those deemed “red code,” or at high risk of carrying the virus.

At the time of its release, the app received well-deserved criticism from foreign observers. The state was, as rightly pointed out, cracking down on freedoms of privacy and free movement.

But then a sea change occurred in the attitude of Western leaders and media as the virus began to spread worldwide. Suddenly safety at the cost of freedom became a politically expedient position. Aggressive contact tracing and geolocation data harvesting apps were introduced, and continue to be introduced, in developed countries as diverse as Australia, Poland, and Israel.

The irony has not been lost in China. In the words of a retrospective analysis by University of California professor Chuncheng Liu, the free world’s embrace of mass data collection in the name of fighting COVID-19 only “further proved” to Chinese social media commentators that China “was right about surveillance from the beginning.”

Bureaucrats around the world were quick to imitate China’s methods in other ways, too. Authoritarian Russia expanded its AI-powered camera network in 2020, citing the supposed interest of public safety. Liberal Britain did the same thing at around the same time, citing the need to enforce social distancing. At the beginning of the pandemic, dystopian footage emerged out of China showing loudspeaker-equipped drones warning civilians to go home; within a couple of months, drones were being used to enforce health measures in places like Greece, Spain, Ireland, and even Connecticut.

None of this is to assert that any government other than Beijing has fully embraced totalitarian surveillance methods. There are more and less harmful methods of surveillance and even mass data collection. An app that knows everything about a person at the point of contact can still, on paper, protect his or her privacy with the right combination of encryption, anonymization, and prudent data handling.

Nonetheless, the expansion of the surveillance state around the world in the past two years portends bad things to come. Even if the newly introduced methods of watching and controlling the public were to disappear alongside the pandemic, many ostensibly liberal governments tampered with civil liberties in disturbing ways, and they will have precedent to try again in the future.

Long COVID

Even worse is the likely possibility that many governments, having been given a taste of data-powered authoritarianism, will not relinquish control so easily.

Just as important as the growth of the physical tools of surveillance has been the attempted legitimization of an all-encompassing philosophy of surveillance and control. Since 2020, there has been a fundamental shift in the attitude of many bureaucrats and voters toward the role of government. Gone are the traditional progressive arguments about positive liberty, the idea that government intervention can promote freedom. Much trendier now is the “guardian state” — a government that boasts of curtailing liberty in the interest of protecting the health of its citizens and soothing their anxieties.

The worldwide shift in governance prompted by COVID-19 has perhaps only one suitable historical analogue, in the Second World War. The story of U.S. government deficits and debts is a story of the paradigm shift that occurred because of the war. Having mobilized an all-of-state effort to smash the Japanese empire and the Nazis, New Deal progressives began to wage expensive — and frequently fruitless — government wars on poverty, racism, and every other social ill.

Now a new precedent has been set for mass surveillance. “Whiteness” has already been declared a pandemic, surely as destructive as any Wuhan bat virus. Soon we may add conservative activism to that list.

When, years ago, President Barack Obama went after conservative groups with the IRS, he did so secretively out of concern for public backlash. When, this February, Prime Minister Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the threat of unprecedented financial sanctions to harass truckers protesting Canada’s vaccine mandates, he did so proudly and publicly.

As part of his campaign against civil disobedience, Trudeau effectively conscripted Canada’s banks into participating in a huge data dragnet: financial firms were forced to scrutinize the political sympathies of their customers, immediately freezing the accounts of anyone participating in, or materially supporting, so-called “illegal protests.” Such civil disobeyers were then to be promptly reported to Canadian intelligence. Not even accounts suspected of money laundering are usually acted upon so decisively by banks. (READ MORE by John Jiang: COVID Zero Is the Technocracy’s Test Run)

Trudeau’s actions plumbed the depths of progressive authoritarianism, and many rightly pointed this out. Yet the public backlash was disappointingly muted; the loudest opposition voice was not a Canadian at all, but Tucker Carlson. Many, it seemed, had grown accustomed to government violations of liberties and privacy in the supposed public interest.

Similar breaches of privacy occurred at the hands of U.S. federal law enforcement in the wave of last year’s Capitol riots. The FBI investigation into the event was a master class in post-hoc data harvesting. According to the Washington Post, the case showed “a mix of FBI techniques, from license plate readers to facial recognition.”

These techniques prove that China-level surveillance penetration is far from necessary for a government to threaten civil liberties. In the case of cell phone location data, federal agents tapped multiple sources: warrants served to telecommunications providers, tip-offs from “Sedition Hunters,” and media outlets that had managed to obtain cell phone data leaked from supposedly secure data pipelines.

When a congressional panel tried to access encrypted messages sent on January 6 in September, Politico quoted an expert claiming that cracking message encryption “is really just a question of time and money.” Indeed, there are few surefire guarantees of privacy in a society permeated by data collection; there is only the uncertain reprieve of government indifference. When a president is in office who calls Trump supporters “domestic terrorists,” don’t count on such a reprieve.

Of course, the Biden administration faces more friction when collecting surveillance data on its citizens than the Xi administration does. The brutal crackdown on the January 6 podium-stealers, as shameful as it has been, has yet to be repeated elsewhere in the United States. Nonetheless, the fact that such capability was demonstrated so publicly should, as Bentham would have argued, have a chilling effect.

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