All Surveillance, All the Time

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by J.P. Massar

The future is here. An unholy mix of 1984, Minority Report and cyberpunk. In westernmost China, and increasingly everywhere in a country composing one seventh of humanity, the omnipresent surveillance state is a reality.

Nithin Coca, in an article in Engadget, describes such a hyper-Orwellian system as it exists now in the province of Xinjiang, which is inhabited primarily by the Uyghur people.

It’s a gargantuan melding of personnel and technology:

“90,000 security staff in the region, the highest ratio of people to security in any province in China…  a dense network of street corner, village or neighborhood police stations designed to keep an eye out everywhere and rapidly respond to any threat, perceived or real… facial-recognition cameras; iris and body scanners at checkpoints, gas stations and government facilities; collection of DNA samples for a massive database; mandatory apps that monitor messages and data flow on Uyghurs’ smartphones; drones to monitor the borders.”

The Chinese government is taking the steps to implement a region-wide, and eventually nationwide, equivalent of Oakland’s now-dead Domain Awareness Center: “a fully integrated system that uses artificial intelligence to rapidly process massive amounts of information for use by the similarly massive numbers of police”

“For Uyghurs… wherever they go, whomever they talk to and even whatever they read online are all being monitored by the Chinese government… “When Uighurs buy a kitchen knife, their ID data is etched on the blade as a QR code.” … Uyghurs are also being forced to hand over DNA samples and put spyware on their phones.”

Affirming our historical knowledge that technology will always be subverted without strong protections and constant vigilance, the Chinese government has gained almost complete control over the Internet:

“[The Internet is now] the source of information empowering the Chinese government to preemptively arrest and detain not only Uyghurs but also, increasingly, Chinese human rights lawyers, feminist activists and journalists around the country…”

This is the nightmare that Oakland Privacy fights against. A rag-tag group of volunteers may not seem like much against the overwhelming presence of the state, but we’ve won more than our share of victories. And just a few days ago we achieved a critically important first step, in Berkeley, CA, getting a law passed that allows the people to rein in surveillance on a local level.

As someone in the Middle Kingdom is said to have said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

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