However, extensive New York Times research reveals that the depth of information gathering and tracking in China, on the tools and infrastructures that support it, is even wider and more sophisticated than previously known and descends to the most superficial details, such as worn clothing, to human depths.
For more than a year The newspaper analyzed More than 100,000 government tender documents covering two decades have been provided to it by the digital magazine ChianaFile. In the documents, government agencies in China list what surveillance products and services they need – from telephone monitoring systems to iris detection equipment and DNA samples. Information and strengthen its authoritarian rule.
It starts with the camera, which is at the base of the surveillance state. It is estimated that about half of the billion surveillance cameras currently in operation in the world are in China. A tender from Fujian County details the police plan to improve its facial recognition systems and reveals how much information their facial recognition cameras capture. The system in question recognizes faces from a video feed and stores 2,000 images from each feed daily. The photos are kept for a period of 180 days. The Fujian police have 7,000 video feeds – that is, the database contains 2.52 million face images at any given moment – three times the largest face image database in the U.S., of the Department of Homeland Security.
The location of the cameras is done in a calculated and strategic way, with the police detailing in the tenders the location and angle of photography of the cameras. For example, there are instructions to install a camera on the northeast side of a specific apartment building in Beijing and in front of a kindergarten in another city. Police have also asked to install cameras in private spaces such as hotel lobbies (for example, in the branch of the American Days Inn chain) karaoke clubs and residential buildings. One document revealed that the police had requested full access to the cameras installed in the hotel of the Sheraton chain.
A document from the city of Shijiu in Guangdong Province reveals the philosophy of local government officials and states that their purpose is “full surveillance coverage”. According to the document, cameras should be placed in places where people fulfill their most basic needs and count locations of shopping, residential, study and tourism areas.
Special software is used to analyze and extract information from the photos and videos collected. These programs are able to detect variables like race, ethnicity, color of clothes and whether they are wearing a mask or glasses. Technology can also check if a person’s image exists in various databases and the results usually contain identifying information such as ID number, name, gender and fixed address.
Despite the prevalence of these systems, the government does not believe that they are in wide enough use. In a document from the Ministry of Public Security, a senior official complains that the analytical capabilities must be improved and that the use of systems is too decentralized. The government is determined not only to promote a concentration of systems but also to implement new and more invasive surveillance technologies.
The cameras provide China with comprehensive coverage of the public life of its subjects. For private life, the target is the smartphone that stores data like location, interlocutors and online activities, and is actually a collection of a person’s habits and preferences. According to the New York Times, Chinese police forces are using telephone monitoring tools to connect digital life to physical location and in recent years there has been a significant expansion in the use of these tools. Sometimes they are embedded inside cameras, in other cases they are disguised as Wi-Fi routers.
How do these tools work? The phone is always looking for the strongest network signal to connect to. Some tools, called IMSI Catcher, mimic strong cellular signals, connect to the phone and capture its unique ID number. Others, Wi-Fi Sniffers, impersonate public Wi-Fi networks and intercept and decrypt the device’s outgoing communications. Authorities use these tools to map device movement in space.
If, say, a user has posted a post that does not please the government, the police can contact the social platform and ask them for the username, phone number and ID number of the device. This number is entered into the monitoring system and thus see where the user was and where he can be located. The systems can also detect and broadcast the applications installed on the device. For example, police in Guangdong used these systems in an attempt to locate phones on which an Uyghur dictionary app is installed. This, in order to identify citizens of the Uighur minority – one of the most persecuted and oppressed groups in China. Such monitoring systems are deployed in all 31 provinces of China.
These monitoring tools become more powerful when combined with more information. For example, with the help of systems developed and supplied to the government by the local company Megvii. The company’s technology can combine different types of personal information collected from mobile phones, surveillance cameras and other systems. The company told the New York Times that the goal of its systems is to make communities safer. In practice, it presents authorities with highly segmented personal information that includes activity analysis, recently worn clothing, vehicles used, mobile device information and social connections.
The pursuit of personal information reaches even the deepest biological levels. The administration actively collects voice signatures, iris scans and DNA samples from civilians. The official claim is that the purpose of this collection is to monitor criminals, but the documents repeatedly show that the police collect vast amounts of information from innocent civilians. Police have devices that can record sound within a radius of more than 90 meters around street cameras, with the aim of analyzing and adding people’s voice signatures to a database.
Voice and face recognition has one fundamental limitation – they can change over time. Therefore, the government is working to collect more permanent identities, including iris and DNA patterns. In Xinjiang Province, where the vast majority of the Uighur minority in China lives, a government contractor has built a database that can store iris patterns of up to 30 million people – the entire population in the province. Is now building similar reservoirs in the rest of the country.
The government also consistently collects male DNA samples and uses them to create intergenerational catalogs. The Y chromosome is consistently passed from father to son, grandson and great-grandchild. And the geographical origin. Many countries restrict the collection of DNA to suspects only, but China is working to establish a growing male DNA database. The first reservoir was established in Henan Province in 2014. Today, such reservoirs exist in at least 25 of China’s 31 provinces. In a tender from Gansu Province, police write: “Do not miss even one family in one village, do not miss even one man in one family.”
This huge collection has one main goal: to create a comprehensive profile of every citizen, which will be accessible anytime and anywhere along the avenues of government – this, in order to prepare the ground for even more extensive control efforts.
The extensive research does not answer a single fundamental question: how does China develop such advanced surveillance capabilities. It is likely that such capabilities could not have been created without the direct or indirect support of the West. Directly, the various systems are likely to be aided by hardware or software developed in Western democracies and exported by Western companies. Indirectly, the extensive and unrestricted trade ties that the countries of the world have with China provide it with the economic infrastructure needed to develop, deploy and use this huge surveillance infrastructure. Any trade agreement with China, any diplomatic or economic achievement with the country translates down the road into another surveillance system that turns people into information units without rights and autonomy.