How China Is Policing the Future


How China Is Policing the Future: China’s population of almost 1.4 billion people is under constant surveillance. Cameras set up by law enforcement agencies all over the place catch them, whether it’s on street corners, subway ceilings, hotels, or apartment buildings. There is a lot of monitoring of their phone calls, transactions, and online interactions.

Even their future is now being monitored.

A new breed of technology examines the massive volumes of data collected on people’s daily actions to uncover patterns and aberrations, promising to anticipate crimes or demonstrations before they happen. People with criminal records and vulnerable groups, such as ethnic minorities, migrants, and individuals with a history of mental illness are all considered potential troublemakers by the Chinese government.

If a fraud victim attempts to go to Beijing to beg the government for payment or if a drug user repeatedly contacts the same number, they can alert the authorities. A person with a history of mental illness might be flagged for police any time they come into contact with a school.

The computerised tripwires necessitate considerable evasive actions. As a 74-year-old man who has been petitioning the government for most of his adult life, Zhang Yuqiao, a guy who was tortured by his parents during the Cultural Revolution, used to be able to simply avoid the authorities by staying away from the main highways. Rather than using his phones, he now only purchases train tickets to fictitious locations and makes his payments in cash.

According to procurement and other papers examined by The New York Times while being mostly unproven, new Chinese technologies are expanding the frontiers of social and political control and integrating them into people’s daily lives. Using them as a justification for smothering monitoring and violating privacy, they could also lead to systemic discrimination and political repression.

Any threat to social stability must be addressed by the government. To suppress ethnic unrest in China’s western region Xinjiang and implement some of the world’s most draconian coronavirus lockdowns, Xi Jinping has consolidated China’s security state, unleashing techno-authoritarian measures. Disagreement’s small window of opportunity is soon closing.

According to Mr. Xi, in 2019 at a national public security work meeting, “Big data should be employed as an engine to fuel the innovative development of public security work and a new growing point for nurturing fighting capabilities”.

Despite the fact that they are problematic in other nations, the algorithms are frequently heralded as technological advances.

After software raised suspicions about a couple’s marriage in 2020, authorities in southern China denied a woman’s desire to go to Hong Kong with her husband, local police said. A subsequent investigation revealed that the two had not spent the Spring Festival together and were rarely in the same spot at the same time. According to the investigation, the marriage had been staged in order to obtain a visa for a foreign country.

After an electronic warning regarding an individual’s frequent admission into a residential property with changing companions, the police in northern China decided to investigate further. According to state media, they learned that he was involved in a pyramid scheme.

The Times has analysed and verified hundreds of governmental procurement documents, police research papers, surveillance contractor patents and presentations, and other sources to learn more about these growing security technology. ChinaFile, an online journal published by the Asia Society that has carefully gathered years of information on official websites, has shared many of the procurement documents. IPVM, a surveillance industry newsletter, published a second set of details on software purchased by Tianjin officials to prevent petitioners from travelling to Beijing.

Requests for comment faxed to the Ministry’s Beijing headquarters and six regional offices around China went unanswered.

An important aspect of this shift is the use of data-driven police software from the United States and Europe, which has been accused of encoding racism into decisions such as which neighbourhoods are most heavily patrolled and who is eligible for parole. China goes to the extreme, allowing the police to act with secrecy and impunity by accessing national data repositories.

If you’re being observed, chances are you won’t realise it. The efficiency of the technology and the acts it prompts are not closely scrutinised by the public or the media in the case of the police. There are no warrants required by the Chinese government to obtain personal information.

A recurring science fiction issue is raised: How can we know if the future has been accurately foretold if police intervene before it occurs??

Surveillance can be regarded a success even if the software is unable to predict human behaviour, scientists say.

In Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, “the disproportionate brunt of it being felt by categories of people that are already highly discriminated against in Chinese society.”

‘Nowhere to Hide’

One of China’s most well-known entrepreneurs had a vision for the future in 2017: a computer system that could detect crimes.

Artificial intelligence (AI) start-up founder Yin Qi told Chinese state media that the surveillance system may give police a search engine for criminal activity by evaluating massive volumes of video data and alerting authorities to questionable conduct. Cameras could warn a suspected pickpocket if they noticed a person staying a long time at a train station, he said.

According to Mr. Yin, “it would be alarming if there were people looking behind the camera, but behind it is system.” We all know how neutral the search engine we use on a daily basis is. “It’s meant to be a good deed.”

He went on to say that “the bad guys have nowhere to hide” in the face of this kind of surveillance.

His dream is slowly becoming a reality five years later. An examination of Megvii’s internal presentations by The Times reveals how the company’s products help the police put together complete digital dossiers.

As stated in the “intelligent search” product description, “build a multidimensional database that stores faces, photographs, cars and case and incident information.” To “stifle illicit behaviours in the cradle,” the programme examines the data to “dig out regular people who seem innocent.”

An emailed comment from a Megvii official stated that the firm was concerned about making life more convenient rather than “tracking any particular group or individual.”

As previously said, similar technology is in use. Protest prediction software was purchased by the police in Tianjin in 2022, manufactured by a Megvii competitor, Hikvision. In China, petitioners are people who register complaints against local officials with higher authorities. The system collects statistics on the legions of Chinese petitioners.

It then ranks petitioners based on how likely they are to travel to China. According to a procurement document, the data will be utilised to train machine learning models in the future.

To avoid political humiliation or the exposing of misbehaviour, local officials are trying to prohibit such excursions. Disgruntled citizens aren’t welcome in the capital, and the central authority doesn’t want them there.

A Hikvision spokesman declined to comment on the system.

Official efforts to manage petitioners have gotten more intrusive under Mr. Xi. For years, petitioners had sought compensation for a real estate scam in China, but in 2017 the government stopped them in Shanghai before they could buy plane tickets to Beijing, according to Zekun Wang, a 32-year-old member of the group. On WeChat, he was worried that the government was keeping tabs on their conversations.

An advanced Hikvision system is used in Tianjin, run in conjunction with the local police in Beijing and Hebei Province.

People’s chance of petitioning is determined by their social and family relationships, past travels, as well as their current personal circumstances. Officers might use the form to record traits like “paranoid,” “meticulous,” and “short-tempered” while constructing a profile of a protester.

In many cases, petitioners express their dissatisfaction with the government’s treatment of a terrible accident or neglect. An early-warning risk level should be increased for people with poor social status or who have experienced great tragedy, according to the procurement document.

Automating Prejudice

As part of a 2018 purchase of 439 additional cameras for Zhouning, Fujian Province, police indicated the locations where each camera would be installed. According to a procurement document, some were hung above intersections and others near schools.

Outside the homes of people with mental illness, nine were installed.

When it comes to finding new threats, some software relies on data, but the most prevalent form is based on what the police already know. The Times examined over a hundred procurement documents and found that the surveillance focused on “important persons” on blacklists.

According to some of the procurement records, these individuals included people with mental illnesses, criminals who had been convicted, fugitives, drug users, petitioners, suspected terrorists, political agitators, and risks to societal stability.. Systematic discrimination was used against groups such as unauthorised immigrants and persons with HIV/AIDS who were neither in school or employed by the government.

People are placed on these lists at the whim of the authorities, and they are rarely notified of their inclusion. It is difficult to remove people from databases once they are there, according to analysts, who fear that the new technology would exacerbate China’s social inequities by enforcing surveillance on its poorest citizens.

More than simply identifying a population, the programme can be used to put up digital “tripwires” that indicate a potential danger. On the unveiling of Yitu’s competing product, Megvii permitted police to design their own early-warning systems.

It is possible for the police to set off alarms based on a variety of characteristics, such as where the individual is, when they are moving about, if they are meeting with other people on the blacklist, and how often they engage in certain actions. In the event that two persons with a history of drug usage check into the same hotel or four people with a history of protest attend the same park, the system may be set to transmit a warning to authorities.

According to a bid document, the police in Nanning, China, purchased software in 2020 that could scan for “three or more important people checking into the same or neighbouring hotels” and “a drug user dialling a new out-of-town number regularly.” If a foreigner who does not have a work permit spends too much time at a foreign-language school or bar, the authorities will be alerted. This is an obvious effort to detect those who are overstaying their visas and working illegally.

The authorities in Shanghai, according to a party-run journal, utilise software to track down those who use more water and power than is customary. When it detected unusual patterns of consumption, the system would issue a “digital whistle” to the authorities.

In order to save money, migrant labourers frequently live in close quarters, which is why this approach was implemented. When it comes to law enforcement in some areas, the police see them as an elusive group that might bring crime into the community.

It’s not the same level of police response that is generated by automatic notifications. Suzanne E. Scoggins, a professor at Clark University who studies China’s policing, says that the police tend to prioritise warnings that signal to political difficulties, such as protests or other risks to social order.

The police have stated explicitly that they must profile people on occasion. Li Wei, a researcher at China’s national police university, stated in a 2016 lecture that “we construct a picture of people and give them labels with diverse traits” using big data. Preemptive security procedures are carried out for people whose identities and behaviour are inferred from one or more labels.

Toward Techno Totalitarianism

Mr. Zhang’s family was tortured during the Cultural Revolution, and he began pressing the government for reparations. As a result of his claims that his family has been singled out by the police, he has filed a petition with the appropriate authorities.

He has had to resort to “spy movie tactics” to get over China’s “high-tech and Nazified” surveillance systems, he claimed.

In order to leave as little of a digital trail as possible during his January trip to Beijing from his hometown in Shandong Province, he left his phone at home and paid for his transportation in cash. he purchased train tickets to a different city than the intended destination in order to thwart police tracking. For security reasons, he hired private drivers to avoid detection at checkpoints where his ID would go off an alarm.

For persons like him, Tianjin has an anti-reconnaissance system with a specific feature, according to a police procurement document seen by the New York Times.

Mr. Zhang has observed anything different, whether or not he set off the system. Officers stop up at his house whenever he shuts off his phone to make sure he hasn’t departed on a new trip to Beijing, he said.

Noam Yuchtman, an economics professor at the London School of Economics who has researched the impact of monitoring in China, said that even if police systems cannot properly predict behaviour, the authorities may deem them successful because of the threat.

When there is no real political responsibility, having a surveillance system that routinely sends police personnel “may perform fairly well” at deterring rebellion, he stated.

A lack of flexibility on the part of officers results from the centralization of control after metrics are established and alerts are activated. Experts and public police reports rate them on how quickly they respond to automated alarms and how well they prevent protests.

Power disparities have been encoded in the technology. A “red list” of people to be ignored by the surveillance system is mentioned in certain bidding documents.

People that need privacy protection or VIP protection, according to a government procurement document, are the target audience for this feature. It was also stated that the red list was only for government employees in the province of Guangdong.

As a result of technological advancements, Mr. Zhang expressed his displeasure.

“The authorities do not truly tackle problems, but they do whatever it takes to silence the people who highlight the problems,” he stated. “Society has taken a significant step backwards.”

While Mr. Zhang believes that technology may be used for good, he cautioned that it can also be misused to cause harm and oppression in the hands of the wrong people.

“In the past, all roads led to Beijing if you left your home and went to the countryside,” he remarked. This country is now encased in an electronic meshwork.