China Boosts Surveillance State Using (Not) Big Data

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In a not surprising turn of events, China is employing ever more sophisticated technologies in its surveillance apparatus to allow authorities to profile and monitor individuals based on real-world and online behaviour and financial transactions. Chinese authorities are looking for deviations from the norm to detect suspicious activity, and they’re using tools that we in the West would find too familiar.

China is employing what has come to be known as “predictive policing” capabilities, of the same kind that are now used in many US and European police departments. Not eager to rely solely on western tech, China is investing heavily in research into homegrown artificial intelligence technologies that can predict “security events.” These events can be anything from a large-scale terrorist attack to an unauthorised gathering of people.

For these systems to work effectively, they need large amounts of data to base calculations on. Luckily for the People’s Republic, data they have a-plenty.  China has invested heavily in recent years in projects to increase its domestic surveillance capabilities. Its “domestic security and stability” budget is now larger than that earmarked for defence.

China’s new anti-terrorism law plays into these plans perfectly. It states that private companies “shall provide technical interfaces, decryption and other technical support and assistance to public security and state security agencies when they are following the law to avert and investigate terrorist activities” – or in other words, complete access to individual users’ data to feed into the state’s surveillance apparatus.

Tasked with creating this behavioural prediction behemoth is state owned defence manufacturer China Electronics Technology Group, whose chief Engineer Wu Manqing recently said: “We don’t call it a big data platform, but a united information environment… It’s very crucial to examine the cause after an act of terror, but what is more important is to predict the upcoming activities.”