It is a fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ruling over China is carrying out extensive surveillance of its people. The country has already deployed sophisticated new technology to aid its various surveillance programs. It is racing rapidly towards becoming the first country in the world to implement a pervasive system of algorithmic and technology-aided supervision to keep a vigil on its entire population, especially in public spaces. A report published on Onezero now states that China is on the brink of achieving 100 per cent surveillance of its public spaces with the help of the ‘Sharp Eyes’ surveillance program.
The program got its start in 2013 from a backwater region of Pingyi County, seven hours north of Shanghai, where the local government began installing thousands of security cameras across rural and urban areas. By 2016, a total of 28,500 cameras were installed. Even the smallest of the villages had at least 6 cameras installed, a state media report said.
However, an intriguing facet of this unique surveillance program was that it turned neighbours into agents of the Chinese Communist Party, helping them in their snooping activities. The footage from the CCTV camera was not only monitored by the law enforcement officials and automated facial recognition algorithms, but they were also fed to the residents themselves with the help of special TV boxes installed in their homes. The residence could watch live security footage coming from the CCTV cameras and summon the police in case they found anything suspicious.
Two years later, in 2015, the Chinese government announced that it is going to extrapolate the program to the rest of the country. The program was dubbed as “Xueliang Project”, or Sharp Eyes, in reference to a quote made by former Chinese ruler Mao Zedong who once wrote that “the people have sharp eyes” when looking out for neighbours that do not uphold communist ideals.
‘Sharp Eyes’ is among a string of projects built by the Chinese government to strengthen its surveillance program. As China’s economy rose, the Chinese Communist Party commissioned projects to carry out an intrusive vigilance of its people. The surveillance programmes were developed to detect defiance and disobedience among the people, and therefore to thwart a potential uprising.
While many other projects are focused on urban and densely populated areas, Sharp Eyes focuses on rural areas, and is meant to offload work of the police that is chronically understaffed in distant and remote places. In Pingyi County, for instance, the total population is 1 million but there are only 300 police officers to enforce law and order.
What gets reported through Sharp Eyes is not just criminal activities taking place in the neighbourhood but administrative oversight in the form of existing potholes on the road, collapsed manhole covers, and similar other instances are also reported over Sharp Eyes. According to a resident, even dubious Multi Level Marketing scheme happening in a nearby building was reported.
Experts believe Sharp Eyes is a surveillance programme that provides an array of services that could be used differently depending on each town or city’s needs, but the underlying premise is the same: A city is divided into grids and each square of the grid acts as its own administrative unit. Cameras are installed in each grid which then gets fed to local authorities and the residents of the grid. Municipal data then can be aggregated based on reports from each square on the grid.
China’s surveillance programmes dates back to early 2000s
Sharp Eyes is one of the recent additions in the long list of surveillance projects commissioned by China in the last two decades. In the last 20 years or so, projects like the Golden Shield Project, Safe Cities, SkyNet, and Smart Cities were executed by the authoritarian rule of the CCP. Similarly, ‘Sharp Eyes’ is another project in the list that adds teeth to the Communist regime’s surveillance capabilities. The implementation of the above projects, including Sharp Eyes means that more than 200 million public and private cameras installed in public spaces to eyeball people across the wide expanse of China.
Back in 2016, China had set a five-year plan for Sharp Eyes to achieve 100 per cent coverage of China’s public spaces. Though the publicly available reports do not expressly indicate that China has hit that goal, but by all accounts, the country is very close to achieving its target.
China’s surveillance program started in earnest in the early 2000s. As Internet was expanding its footprint globally, China launched the Golden Shield Project, run by the Ministry of Public Security(MPS), with a view to have a strict internet censorship. The project was quite successful in China’s aim of regulating the supply of information to its people. While the project aimed at censoring internet, it also included physical surveillance. The MPS created a databases that included information about 96 per cent of China’s citizens. The nature of information included household information, travel history, criminal background and other such details.
A paper published in the American Journal of Political Science said these databases were used by the Chinese police machinery to identity the delinquents and mark them under the ‘blacklist’ category. They were barred from using public transportation and police would be dispatched if someone who had been blacklisted tried to book a bus, train or airline ticket.
On the heels of the Golden Shield Project, which was fairly successful and provided Chinese authorities with great control over its people, two other surveillance projects were launched. In 2003 itself, Safe Cities was launched which focused on disaster warnings, traffic management, and public security. The other one was SkyNet, which dealt with installing cameras connected to facial recognition algorithms.
With the experience of over 16 years in Artificial Intelligence, SkyNet powers commercial security infrastructure in China. It is used at swanky building apartments that use facial recognition to open security gates. However, the photos from the building complexes are then shared with local police to build a database of the local population.
Leaked Chinese police data reveals the extent of China’s invasive surveillance of its people
A report published by The Intercept last month revealed the depth and extent of how the Chinese state keeps a tab on its Muslim minority population in the restive province of Xinjiang. The Intercept accessed the leaked Chinese Police data which threw light on the lengths China had gone in not only keeping a tab on the minority Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang but also their relatives and friends, along with those who are living abroad.
Artificial Intelligence, sophisticated surveillance systems, new-age technology and human intelligence are all employed by the Chinese Communist Party to track and monitor the Uyghur Muslims and those associated with them. For instance, the police automation system in Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang province, issued an “intelligence information judgment” to flag a female relative of a purported extremist who had been offered free travel to Yunnan, a province to the south.
Certain socio-cultural practices have been deemed as against the Chinese culture and could invite punitive action from the police. Practising Islam is considered a red flag. While China claims that the policing in Xinjiang is to curb the menace of extremism and terrorism, it is just a cover for carrying out invasive surveillance of the Muslim minority residents. Mosques have cameras inside and people are monitored for the way they pray. Showing curiosity about Islam, growing a beard, carrying a prayer rug, Uyghur Books, quitting drinking or smoking, is a potential sign of religious extremism and can trigger police action against the adherents.
China has race-detection technology deployed across the country
Besides, it is also being reported that China has deployed race-detection technology across the country to segregate Han Chinese from others. IPVM, a video surveillance research group published a report that said China has deployed AI software across police security camera networks that is capable of detecting the race of the person based on facial markers. The technology detects if someone’s face looks Uyghur, Han (Ethnic Majority of China) or ‘other’.
China’s security camera manufacturers, including the three largest ones Hikvision, Dahua and Uniview, offer ‘Uyghurs analytics’ in their systems. These analytics are also included in the official facial recognition guidelines issued by the PRC government.