China is perfecting a vast network of digital espionage as a means of social control—with implications for democracies worldwide. Imagine a society in which you are rated by the government on your trustworthiness. Your “citizen score” follows you wherever you go. A high score allows you access to faster internet service or a fast-tracked visa to Europe. If you make political posts online without a permit, or question or contradict the government’s official narrative on current events, however, your score decreases. To calculate the score, private companies working with your government constantly trawl through vast amounts of your social media and online shopping data.
This society may seem dystopian, but it isn’t farfetched: It may be China in a few years. The country is racing to become the first to implement a pervasive system of algorithmic surveillance. Harnessing advances in artificial intelligence and data mining and storage to construct detailed profiles on all citizens, China’s communist party-state is developing a “citizen score” to incentivize “good” behavior.
A vast accompanying network of surveillance cameras will constantly monitor citizens’ movements, purportedly to reduce crime and terrorism. While the expanding Orwellian eye may improve “public safety,” it poses a chilling new threat to civil liberties in a country that already has one of the most oppressive and controlling governments in the world. CCTV footage image above taken in Beijing uses the facial-recognition system Face++.
China’s evolving algorithmic surveillance system will rely on the security organs of the communist party-state to filter, collect, and analyze staggering volumes of data flowing across the internet. Justifying controls in the name of national security and social stability, China originally planned to develop what it called a “Golden Shield” surveillance system allowing easy access to local, national, and regional records on each citizen.
This ambitious project has so far been mostly confined to a content-filtering Great Firewall, which prohibits foreign internet sites including Google, Facebook, and The New York Times. According to Freedom House, China’s level of internet freedom is already the worst on the planet. Now, the Communist Party of China is finally building the extensive, multilevel data-gathering system it has dreamed of for decades.
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