Big Brother: China


Author: Fil Zivko
2/3/2019

March 11th, 2018. Two thousand nine hundred and sixty-four (2,964) delegates walked into the Great Hall of the People in Beijing at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Two thousand nine hundred and fifty-eight (2,958) voted to abolish the legislation in Chinas constitution which limits presidents to two terms. This allows the current president, Xi Jinping, to rule indefinitely. This overwhelming 99.8% vote, which directly benefits the president, is an example of the control that one man and his party have on China. But the government itself isn’t the only thing under tight control in China, so is the public and technology plays a big part. WeChat, a Chinese messaging service scored 0/100 by Amnesty International for security, concluding that WeChat is subject to both “censorship and surveillance”. WeChat has over 1 billion users, with 500 million users in China, this equates to just over 1 in 3 people in China using the app. WeChat even admits that it releases personal data used through the app to the Chinese government in compliance with “applicable laws or regulations”. But WeChat isn’t just a messaging app. It serves email, banking, it’s a social platform, you can order a taxi, why not pay your electricity bill? you can book a flight and much more without ever leaving the app. Essentially, WeChat has 500 million users who use it to do almost everything they would normally do on their phone all within the app and the Chinese government can see it all. So, what does the Chinese government do with all of this data? Well, cases are hard to come by in a country with such persistent suppression of the media. However, the implications are massive. From censorship to deterring anti-government protests using the heat-map feature which tracks all the users GPS locations. There is an enormous amount that the government can benefit from this vast array of information. As the proverb goes, knowledge is power. Chinese hardware such as Huawei and ZTE have also fallen under speculation for their security, with the Chinese government having the ability to request user information from any Chinese company the same way they do with WeChat. And while some experts say that this won’t affect the average person, the seriousness of China's potential to use this hardware for its own purposes was highlighted in early 2018 at a Senate intelligence committee hearing, where six major US intelligence agencies, including the FBI, NSA and CIA, unanimously agreed that that private US citizens are advised not to use Huawei or ZTE products and services. So, it’s simple, if you live in China, just don’t buy a mobile device or use an app made by a Chinese company. However, this is easier said than done in a world where owning a mobile device is becoming a necessity. Even if you boycotted using a phone, the Chinese governments tech-dystopia goes beyond the device in your hand. Two hundred million surveillance cameras are in use in China, approximately 1 for every 7 people. In early 2018, these cameras even entered the classroom to monitor the facial expressions and attentiveness of students. Since 2015, China has embarked on a project to create the most powerful facial recognition system ever seen, with goals to recognise 90% of citizens within 3 seconds of recording. While it hasn’t reached that goal yet, it’s been used to catch jaywalkers, unlicensed drivers and pick out wanted fugitives from crowds. The government uses facial recognition along with an outdoor screen to shame jaywalkers by posting their government ID on the screen after they’ve jaywalked. The intent is to shame the individual as their friends, family and co-workers will be able to see their face on the screen. Much like some restaurants pin-up photos of customers who have dined without paying. The idea of shaming people into conforming is not an isolated incident in China. The Chinese government introduced a “social credit system” which is being tested across two dozen local governments in China or about 6% of the population. It is anticipated to be completely in place by 2020. This system is data-driven and creates ratings of each Chinese citizen or business and can affect everything from securing loans to being allowed to board flights. In 2018, a list of 169 “severely discredited” people were released by the Chinese government. The people on this list were subsequently banned from taking flights or trains for a full year. Further, a total of 9 million people with low credit scores have been barred from buying airline tickets or first-class train tickets for various periods of time, some for simple acts such as attempting to take a lighter on a plane, smoking on the train or failure to pay fines. Liu Hu, an investigative journalist in China, was listed as a “dishonest person” for losing a defamation lawsuit after he accused a high ranking politician of corruption. After being detained for almost a year, he lost his case and his social standing. Apart from the restrictions on purchasing travel tickets, Mr Liu has been banned from buying a property, staying the night in luxury hotels and sending his nine-year-old daughter to a private school. If people wish to improve their social credit score they can participate in “pro-social” activities such as helping the elderly, donating blood and volunteering. The program as it currently stands is using pilot programs to test how to implement the full system, hence, some eyebrows are expected to be raised as the government pushes the boundary in the pilots. For example, Zhong Pei was listed on the dishonest person list when she was sixteen after her father killed two people and died in a car accident. It took her four months to clear her name from this list and be granted access to trains and to enrol into a university. If China doesn’t learn from its pilot programs, then this Orwellian future could become the norm. There has been some push-back on the pilot programs. A trial close to Shanghai was suspended after criticism from the media. However, according to a study from Free University in Berlin, a distinguished German research university, approximately 80% of Internet-connected citizens in China approve of the system. Many see the system as less of an instrument for surveillance and more as a means to encourage honesty. Good credit scores give citizens access to financial support, priority to schools and discounts on public tolls. Despite this, a malevolence underlines this program, with much of the western media focusing on the possibility of the government using this as a tool to exert more control on the population. The true extent of the social credit system won’t be seen for a few years so only time will tell if future-day China morphs into an episode of Black Mirror. Xi Jinping appears to practice control of the government in one hand and the Chinese people in the other. While technology is sometimes toted as a tool for a more open and transparent world, I wonder if that is the case in China. Even the internet, a tool which is used around the world for sharing of information and knowledge is suppressed in China. Ranked worst in the world for online freedom out of 65 countries by Freedom House, China beats Iran, Syria, Cuba and Saudi Arabia to take the throne. Commonly referred to as the Great Firewall of China, a fitting name for such a repressive tool. The GFC restricts internet access of 800 million users. According to Bloomberg News, the Chinese government employs 100,000 people to enforce censorship and a 2017 Harvard study estimates the government uses social influencers to post 448 million pro-government comments each year. Even Winnie the Pooh was temporarily censored after internet trolls compared the fictional bear to the president. There are 10,000 domains currently blocked by the Great Firewall of China, including Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and the New York Times. But there are ways to get around the firewall such as web proxies, VPNs or organisations protesting the GFC like greatfire.org. However, this requires a little bit of know-how and it’s not as easy as the average person may find it difficult to figure out how to do it safely. Chinese security authorities in Chongqing have provided a manual for the city’s police to punish anyone attempting to get around the firewall. While the main punishment is simply a warning, anyone found profiting from bypassing the firewall will be fined and VPN providers are deemed as illegal operations unless given prior approval by the Chinese government. We can only speculate that trying to bypass the firewall too many times might result in your photo on a public board or a lowering of your future social credit rating. We like to think that technology brings us closer, that it helps the world be a more open place. It can be used for the right reasons but often there is a trade-off between using technology to make your life easier and your privacy. China’s government may ultimately use their control of the public through technology for good rather than evil, time will tell. However, one thing is certain, technology is a very powerful tool and it has implications that stretch far beyond snapchat filters.

Tags : China, Surveillance, The Great Firewall of China, Facial Recognition, WeChat, Huawei, ZTE, Social Credit Rating, Internet, Censorship, Control, Government, Big Tech Companies, ,2019-02-27
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