A new Washington Post report highlights the role of technology in China’s frightening and fast-developing surveillance state. The “Sharp Eyes” program, dystopian in both name and execution, is a plan to connect the nation’s many surveillance cameras, in both private and public spaces, to a single network. Ultimately, the Chinese government wants to connect this vast network with facial recognition and artificial intelligence to track and surveil its population. As the Post notes, it will be easier than ever for the repressive regime to detain journalists and activists, and as many as 4,000 people have already been arrested by Chinese authorities aided by face recognition tech.
While Sharp Eyes is chilling, the use of advanced software to monitor, surveil and control people is hardly a foreign concept. It’s becoming commonplace in the US, only obscured by whom these systems are targeting.
The backend to Sharp Eyes is the “Public Security Police Cloud.” While cameras record the public, the Police Cloud serves a database for facial recognition tech to draw from. The goal is to create shadow profiles for each citizen containing their name, face and everything the government knows about them, including their medical records, online purchases, and social media data. Radically different databases are linked give the government a holistic knowledge of individuals, tracking where they live, where they go and what they do.
“The bigger picture is to track routine movement, and after you get this information, to investigate problematic behavior,” Li Xiafeng, the director of R&D at the Chinese facial recognition startup Cloudwalk, told the Post. “If you know gambling takes place in a location, and someone goes there frequently, they become suspicious.”
Forming this baseline of routine behavior is critical, because then the system can flag abnormalities. Why is someone in a new neighborhood? Why have their purchasing habits changed suddenly? Deviation from this norm serves as reason enough for the government to be suspicious, prompting further investigation and intrusion. Of course, if a citizen can’t spontaneously fulfill a 3am craving for Chili’s, then freedom is an illusion.
There are a number of legal protections that, for now, make China’s Sharp Eyes program a distant reality for the US, including rights to privacy, freedom of assembly, and prohibitions against unlawful search and seizure. But American authorities are increasingly using algorithmic surveillance in much the same way here—also under the guise of preventing crime and maintaining peace.
The name “Sharp Eyes” is taken from the Mao-era Communist slogan “the masses have sharp eyes” and part of the plan is create a public portal where citizens can watch surveillance footage to spy on each other, but the system’s goals transcend ideology. Just last month, American body camera maker Axon announced Axon Citizen, which lets officers create a public portal for the public to upload cell phone footage that may be relevant to pending cases.
And in November, dozens of AI experts wrote an open letter to the Department of Homeland Security, condemning a plan to use predictive software to algorithmically assess immigrants’ “likelihood” of becoming terrorists and quantify their expected contributions to society. Before that, Homeland Security mandated immigrants turn over social media data when they enter the country. This, of course, overlaps with the stated purpose of China’s project: preventing crime through unprecedented algorithmic authoritarianism.
The First Amendment protects freedom of association, but police still mine social media data and use friends lists to map the connections between people, whether or not they’ve been convicted or even suspected of a crime. In Chicago, it’s called a “heat list,” and it overwhelmingly affects young black men.
While the US still lags behind China in the race to erect an invasive, omnipotent surveillance structure, the spirit of targeted surveillance is still intact here—it’s just targeted (for now) at minorities and non-citizens. When Georgetown researchers raised privacy concerns about Homeland Security’s Biometric Exit program, they were shocked to discover airport security failed to inform US citizens they, unlike foreign nationals, weren’t required to have their faces scanned.
Reports of China’s surveillance state are alarming, but they aren’t a world away. Some of the most alarming aspects of both Sharp Eyes and the Police Cloud—including algorithmic assessments, facial recognition, and crowdsourcing suspects—are happening right here, right now.