We’ve been writing about extreme censorship in China for quite some time now. But something we’ve talked less about is how censorship is coupled with another, equally concerning, rights issue – surveillance.
What is Surveillance?
Surveillance is defined by Merriam-Webster as “close watch kept over someone or something (as by a detective)” and “the act of carefully watching someone or something especially in order to prevent or detect a crime.”
This definition is revealing, in that it imparts the purpose of surveillance is to solve a problem or a crime; and the practice is applied to a specific person or thing. Unfortunately, surveillance has expanded globally in recent years, its current scope reaching well beyond this definition. Mass surveillance – or surveillance conducted indiscriminately on large groups of people (even those who are non-criminals) without cause is a widespread phenomenon. This expansion of surveillance is enabled in large part by the development of technology and advent of our online world. Surveillance is no longer limited to physical or video monitoring but can extend to the collection and monitoring of Internet activity, data, electronic communications and everything that every person does online.
Surveillance in China
China surveils its citizens – both digitally and physically – in an extreme fashion.
China’s capital, Beijing, is the most surveilled city in the entire world, with 100% of the city covered in surveillance cameras according to multiple reports. This video surveillance, part of a national system called “Skynet,” started in 2005 and monitors public areas in Beijing and many other cities (China’s Chongqing is also among the top 5 most surveilled cities worldwide). This system is planned to expand across the entire country by 2020, using Beijing as a model. Video surveillance is correlated with China’s national ID database.
The Chinese government monitors and controls all content online as part of their massive censorship mechanism, The Great Firewall. They also monitor online ongoing, from public-facing social media posts to private conversations and messages sent on platforms such as WeChat. In China, there is no such thing as privacy, and their system of “algorithmic surveillance” utilizes AI and data mining and storage to keep tabs on citizens. Online information is continually filtered, collected and analyzed, contributing to a database of detailed information on each individual. China doesn’t just collect electronic data, either – they are reportedly using this information (shopping habits, credit, online activity, communications, known social ties) to create a “social credit score” or which ranks citizens based on their behavior and sentiments, then grants (or rescinds) social benefits as a result.
Surveillance as an Enabler of Censorship
In China, as with many other parts of the world, surveillance and censorship go hand in hand. Internet censorship under the Great Firewall is made possible by surveillance, and social control and censorship is enacted with video monitoring. Oftentimes, surveillance also results in self-censorship, or the practice of citizens choosing to repress their own views or desires out of fear. This fear manifests itself from the knowledge that one is being monitored or surveilled. Of course, it all contributes to the goal of social control.
In order to filter content and traffic – an essential element of the Great Firewall – the Chinese government must be able to view this content and traffic so they can then make a decision about how to treat it. This means they are surveilling the activity of all Internet users, website providers and ISPs alike. As mentioned above the Chinese government also surveils digital communications, which allows them to then censor various chats and groups on WeChat and social media sites. Dissidents can be disallowed from the platforms, arrested and even detained. On the business side, companies can be prohibited from operating in the country, or compelled to comply with strict censorious guidelines, in essence self-censoring themselves via participation (we’ll cover business implications in our next post – stay tuned).
Without the complex online surveillance capabilities and practices in place, China would not be able to impart an effective Great Firewall nor successfully carry out censorship as they do. Surveillance is a key enabler of censorship, illustrating the oft-ignored fact that these human rights issues are intertwined.