The complicated danger of surveillance states

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Welcome back to China Report!

I recently had a very interesting conversation with Wall Street Journal reporters Josh Chin and Liza Lin. They wrote a new book called Surveillance State, which explores how China is leading the global experiment in using surveillance tech.

We covered a lot of important topics: how covid offered the ideal context to justify expanding government surveillance, how the world should respond to China, and even philosophical questions about how people perceive privacy. You can read the takeaways in full here.

But, in this newsletter I want to share some extra snippets of our conversation that really stuck with us.

Lin are clear about the fact the surveillance state’s emergence is not a problem only in China. Countries that have democratic institutions are attracted to surveillance tech because of its (often artificially made) promises. Lin, who is from Singapore, is a great example.

When Lin was living in Shanghai in 2018, she used to count the number of surveillance cameras she would see every day. As she told me:

I remember one day walking from my apartment to Lao Xi Men station in Shanghai, and there were 17 cameras just from the entrance of that subway station to where you scan your tickets. There were seventeen cameras! All cameras are owned by different safety departments and possibly the metro department.

She thought this phenomenon was unique to China, but when she returned to Singapore she discovered that she was wrong.

Once I started going back [to Singapore] in 2019 and 2020, it [had] started to embrace the same ideas that China had in terms of a “safe city.” I saw cameras popping up at road intersections that catch cars that are speeding, and then you saw cameras popping up at the subway.

Even her son has picked up her habit, but this time in Singapore.

Lin says Lin “is now counting how many cameras we pass when we walk through the subway tunnel to get to the station.” Lin says Lin is now counting the number of cameras as he walks through the subway tunnel to get to the station.

We also discussed the effects of the pandemic surveillance tech. In China, tracing the virus’s spread became another justification for the government to collect data on its citizens, and it further normalized the presence of mass surveillance infrastructure.

Lin told me that the same kind of tracking, if to a lesser extent, happened in Singapore. In March 2020 the country launched an app called TraceTogether, which uses Bluetooth to identify close contacts of people who tested positive for covid. People who don’t have a smartphone can also get an Apple Watch-sized gadget.

Over 92% of the population in Singapore eventually used the app. Lin said that they didn’t make it compulsory. Lin said that it was just like China where you couldn’t go to public places if your contact tracing app wasn’t available.

And once the pandemic surveillance infrastructure had been established, the police took full advantage of it.

Chin: I thought this was really telling. Initialy, they said that it was only for health monitoring. The data will not be accessible to any other government agencies, including the police. They made it clear that they would get people to sign up. And then, I can’t remember how much longer …

Lin: Within that same year.

Chin: Yeah, within the same year, the police were using that technology to track suspects, and they basically openly said: “Well, we changed our minds.”

Lin: And there was a public pushback to that. They stopped doing it. This is just one example of how easily one use can lead into another.

The pushback led the Singaporean parliament to pass a bill in February 2021 to restrict police use of TraceTogether data. While state forces can still access the data, they must go through a stricter approval process.

It’s easy to see that not all countries will respond in the same way. Many Asian countries were the first to adopt covid tracing app. It’s not clear how the relevant authorities will handle the data they collected along their journey. So it was a pleasant surprise when I read that Thailand, which pushed for its own covid app, named MorChana, announced in June that it would close down the app and delete all relevant data.

I have been thinking about the implications of the pandemic on surveillance technology since our conversation. One, it helped me see that surveillance isn’t an evil that all “good” societies would naturally object too. There is a delicate balance between privacy and public health. And it’s precisely for this reason that we should expect to see governments around the world, including democracies, keep citing new reasons to justify using surveillance tech. There will always be a crisis to address, right?

Instead of relying upon governments to be responsible for data and correct errors when they make mistakes, Chin & Lin argued that it is important to recognize the dangers of surveillance tech early and to create regulations to protect against them.

How should countries approach surveillance technology? Let me know your thoughts at zeyi@technologyreview.com

Catch up with China

1. Using the medical records of Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor and covid whistleblower who died in Wuhan in February 2020, reporters were able to reconstruct his final days. They confirmed that doctors had been pushed to use excessive resuscitation to show that he was receiving quality care. (The New York Times $)

2. The Biden administration will prohibit international companies from selling advanced chips or relevant tools to certain Chinese businesses, and not just American ones. (Reuters $)

  • Of course, Chinese companies will look for workarounds: already, a startup run by a former Huawei executive is building a semiconductor manufacturing factory in Shenzhen. It could help Huawei bypass US chip export restrictions. (Bloomberg $)
  • On Monday, $240 billion in Asian chip companies’ stock market value was wiped out as traders predicted the new controls will hurt their sales. (Bloomberg $)
  • The chip export control is the latest in a series of administrative actions intended to restrict China’s efforts to advance in critical technologies. To help you understand them, I wrote a primer last year. (MIT Technology Review)

3. Chinese electric-vehicle manufacturers are eager for lithium mines, and they spend a lot of money around the world to ensure supply. (Tech Crunch)

4. Young parents in China are being persuaded by social media influencers to take drastic measures to ensure their children conform to traditional beauty standards. (Sixth Tone)

5. The almighty algorithms of Douyin, China’s domestic version of TikTok, are failing to understand audio in Cantonese and suspending live streams for “unrecognized languages.” (South China Morning Post $)

6. Apple plans to manufacture its flagship iPhones in India to reduce dependence on China. (BBC)

Lost in translation

Since 2015, banks and fintech platforms have popularized the use of facial verification to make payments faster and more convenient. However, there is a high chance that facial recognition data could be hacked and leaked.

So it’s probably to no one’s surprise that “paying with your face” has already gone quite wrong in China. The Chinese publication Caijing recently reported on a mysterious scam case in which criminals were able to bypass the bank’s facial recognition verification process and withdraw money from a victim’s account, even though she didn’t provide her face. Experts concluded that criminals likely tricked bank security system using a combination illegally obtained biometric data as well as other technical tools. According to local court documents, identity documents, bank account information, and facial recognition data are sometimes sold on the black market at the price of just $7 to $14 per individual account.

One more thing

Nothing can stop Chinese grandpas and grandmas from coming up with innovative ways to stay fit. After square dancing, marching in line formation, and other exercises I don’t even know how to describe, the latest trend is the “crocodile crawl,” in which they crawl on all fours after one another on a jogging track. It does seem like a great workout.

Screenshot of a Douyin video of dozens of people doing crocodile crawl together.
Screenshot of a crocodile crawl video posted on Douyin

See you next week!

Zeyi

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