The wide range of applications of increasingly sophisticated Artificial Intelligence (AI) can also cover the identification and tracking of every single person in a targeted society, for better or worse.
In this sense, numerous voices warn, and others rise against the misuse of technological advances available to governments, searching for greater control of the citizens entrusted to their care and protection. While this is a global trend, the Chinese regime, in particular, has invested large portions of its budget in making AI a significant underpinning of its system.
In recent years, the Communist Party of China (CCP) has spent billions of dollars developing, purchasing, and implementing cutting-edge advances such as AI-facilitated facial recognition and other digital developments to add to its citizen monitoring network, according to Fox News.
Chinese authorities combine old and cutting-edge technologies, including phone scanners, facial recognition cameras, face and fingerprint databases, and many others, to integrate robust systems for social control.
Once these cyber tools are combined and fully operational, Chinese police use them to capture the identity of people walking down the street through digital video cameras. They assess whether their behavior conforms to the norms determined by the regime as socially acceptable, find out who they are meeting, and identify who does or does not belong to the CCP.
Journalists and students as targets
While government institutions often present surveillance systems employing AI as resources that allow security departments greater precision and scope to determine and timely quell any risks to taxpayers’ security and social stability, it is also true that they tend to be used to limit their fundamental rights.
Since the Chinese regime prevents citizens from freely electing their representatives from a democratic system of government, freedom of expression does not suit the permanence of its power. So journalists and foreign students were declared the target of the sophisticated surveillance system in Henan province, where officials acquired a surveillance system that tracks them as “suspicious persons.”
The contract was awarded to Chinese technology company Neusoft for $782,000 on Sept. 17, 2021. In Henan, the system integrates several thousand facial recognition cameras linked to complex national and regional databases, according to Reuters on Nov. 29. The accuracy of the circuitry allows people to be identified even if a mask or glasses partially cover their faces.
What is most striking about this surveillance strategy is that it declares journalists and international students as targets and prompts security personnel to locate them and hinder their activities quickly. Also targeted are “women from neighboring countries who are illegal residents.”
“While the PRC has a documented history of detaining and punishing journalists for doing their jobs, this document illustrates the first known instance of the PRC building custom security technology to streamline state suppression of journalists,” said Donald Maye, chief operating officer of U.S. surveillance research firm IPVM, referring to the targeting.
According to the most recent report, the Chinese regime has become the system that applies the most significant repression against foreign journalists, with 127 of them deprived of their freedom, more than double the 53 held by Burma, the second in this dishonorable world ranking published by Reporters Without Borders. Vietnam is next with 43, Belarus with 32, and Saudi Arabia with 31 cases.
Of the foreign journalists detained, 19 are women, including journalist Sofia Huang Xuegin, an activist of the #MeToo movement in China accused of “subversion of state power.” Also, Gulmira Imin, in charge of the Uighur web portal Salkin, was sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatism” and “disclosure of state secrets.” And Zhang Zhan, who is very ill, was the recipient of the 2021 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Award.
The MY2022 application scandal
On the other hand, the close surveillance of journalists continues to the extent that the most recent scandal was unleashed when the risks of privacy and security vulnerabilities were involved in the MY2022 application. The Chinese communist regime forces all journalists covering the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, currently under development, to install the MY2022 app on their cell phones.
The flaws involving serious privacy issues in the platform were discovered and published by the Canadian research group Citizen Lab of the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. For example, a “simple but devastating flaw” allows “trivial circumvention” of the encryption protecting users’ voice audio and file transfers.
“In previous studies, we found the presence of censorship and surveillance keyword lists in different Chinese communication apps that provide similar services. For example, “bundled with the Android version of MY2022, we discovered a file named ‘illegalwords.txt,’ which contains a list of 2,442 keywords generally considered politically sensitive in China,'” describes Citizen Lab.
Athletes are also required to use the app, so the German sports organization, Athleten Deutschland, sees these revelations as confirming its long-held fears.
“China has perfected its surveillance apparatus, has critics disappear, and commits blatant human rights violations. We should not be naive and lightly dismiss scenarios that are unimaginable to us,” the organization said in a statement to DW.
However, the International Olympic Committee defended the application and downplayed the problems uncovered by Citizen Lab without technically refuting the points specified by them.
Previously, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) protested that the CCP’s rules on how to report the sporting event were unclear and not transparent and called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Beijing Organizing Committee (BOCOG) to improve working conditions.
“Over the last year, the foreign press corps has been continuously stymied in its coverage of Winter Olympic Game preparations, denied attendance at routine events, and prevented from visiting sports venues in China,” the journalists’ association wrote.
It also accused the Chinese regime of repeatedly lying, saying on its Twitter account, “In its bid for the 2022 Winter Games, China explicitly promised that “media seeking to report on the Games would have the freedom to report … and would also be free to report on Games preparation.'”
They added: “Yet in the last year, the foreign press corps has largely been unable to attend any press conferences or even observe routine events—such as venue visits or the arrival of the Olympic flame—which are open to Chinese domestic media.”
Pressure on journalists outside and inside China
Within the context under review, the CCP has no qualms about extending censorship against journalists beyond its territorial borders, as evidenced in March last year. For example, the editors of the Sydney, Australia, university newspaper Honi Soit removed an article detailing the controversial links of two academic engineers at the University of Sydney to its recruitment programs and that Chinese universities were sanctioned for their research on military technology.
In addition, they published their “unreserved apology” for the alleged harm caused to the two academics, the Chinese community, and readers, without denying the facts reported by the journalists. This censorship was strongly criticized by readers, analysts, and politicians. For example, Drew Pavlou, a well-known human rights activist, condemned the publisher’s decision, calling it shameful in his tweets.
Within the country, the communist regime’s Internet regulator has a dark history of censoring political dissidents and journalists in response to its efforts to have absolute control over all online content sanctioning all those that deviate from the established guidelines.
As reported by the South China Morning Post (SCMP), more than 20,000 accounts of influential users in Chinese society were blocked or deleted during the year 2021 for alleged “misuse” and many others for not promoting “fundamental socialist” values.
One of the influencers who had his social media account shut down is Luo Changping, a well-known investigative journalist who used the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, similar to Twitter, to expose a senior CCP economic official in 2012.
Proliferation of video cameras in China
One public surveillance camera is currently installed for every four citizens in China. And installations are expected to increase this year to 567 million cameras.
In this context, Taiyuan, a Chinese city with about 4 million inhabitants where about 117 video surveillance cameras per 1,000 inhabitants are estimated, “is believed to have been the world’s most watched city of 2021,” according to Comparitech.
Those who benefit most from the business are the companies that specialize in the production of surveillance equipment such as video cameras and the programs that integrate them on a large scale, as noted by the author Jonathan Hillman about the company Hikvision:
“With generous state support at home and low-cost sales abroad, Hikvision has become the world’s surveillance heavyweight. Its facilities can churn out 260,000 cameras daily—two for every three people born each day. In 2019, it produced nearly a quarter of the world’s surveillance cameras, with sales in more than 150 countries.”
Likewise, China’s state-owned tracking systems manufacturer, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), established in 2002, has supplied:
- Military-style command and surveillance systems
- Facial recognition systems that automate ethnic profiling
- A Police program that aggregates data and flags individuals deemed potentially threatening, as used by the CCP in the Xinjiang Uighur region.
Referring to CETC, the president stated, “Our goal is to lead the development of China’s electronics industry and build the cornerstone of national security,” in 2017.
Establishing AI-based citizen control
The application of AI technically responds to the CCP’s totalitarian ambitions that lead it to control every citizen and the entire Chinese society. Subjecting society to a set of “commandments” guarantees the permanence of the communist regime, with no respect for its fundamental individual rights, such as those of freedom of speech, association, or creeds.
Given the strong tendency of the CCP to determine the parameters under which citizens are considered as socially “good,” regardless of the ethical, moral, or spiritual values that inspire them or have been cultivated for thousands of generations, it imposes a regulation that qualifies their behavior. Then, depending on how adherently they have followed the rules determines their access to social services.
The CCP became since 1950 the forerunner of social management as part of the political apparatus to help the regime solve the upcoming stability problems, which may eventually threaten it. AI has placed it at the forefront of these control systems.
In this regard, “The 12th Five-Year Plan (2011) dedicates a whole chapter to the discussion of the necessity to innovate social management as a major target of the government—and in terms of what it can achieve,” according to the review written by author Marianne von Blomberg in 2018.
There is a long list of violations that Chinese officials may be looking for, including evidence that they write and share anti-government ideologies.
AI software detects breaches of rules imposed by the Chinese regime and alerts officials when a violation has occurred. The technology has advanced to the point where the AI can identify videos and other posts of anti-government protests on social media and block users from viewing them.
The consequences of deviating from regulations affect app users and companies. First, they must be careful in obeying them, as their Internet data can be used against them in the event of a breach.
Data revealing a company’s non-compliance with contractual obligations are taken into account and can play an important role in determining a company’s social credit score.
Surveillance through AI is not only dedicated to journalists and students. In addition to multiple international complaints and protests issued over the years for human rights violations, Human Rights Watch claims that the CCP uses artificial intelligence (AI) against native Uyghurs, underground Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong followers in violation of ethical provisions.
An Australian university lobby group attempted to withdraw an “unethical” facial recognition AI study funded in part by the Chinese regime and a former Curtin University professor.
The Western Australian education provider said it uncovered multiple ethical violations regarding informed consent and approval, and it is believed that it may be used to surveil persecuted groups.
“This is an app that has been designed to gather basic information about Uighurs and other Muslims,” Human Rights Watch denounced in a statement obtained by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, adding, “We know that people have been sent to political re-education camps on the basis of information collected through this application.”
For his part, Senator and chairman of Australia’s parliamentary intelligence and security committee, James Paterson, said, “It is alarming to think an Australian university was involved with research that can so clearly be used for profoundly unethical purposes.”
The Chinese regime’s control policies are closing in ever more tightly on its large population, even more so now with the use of AI as a surveillance tool, with consequences that may involve the loss of personal freedom.
In this regard, the Hong Kong Post cited a report by Spain-based rights group Safeguard Democracy that under the Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) policy, Chinese authorities can detain any person, local or foreign, for up to six months at an undisclosed location.
“Anywhere between 27,000 and 56,000 people may have suffered such detention in the last seven years. Thousands more are said to be in detention as of today. In 2020 alone, over 10,000 people were detained, it is suspected,” the Hong Kong Post reported, according to a Jan. 31 Ani News quote.