Data hunger Chinese government bigger than expected

The Chinese government’s surveillance system to collect personal data from citizens is many times greater than previously believed. Mobile phone tracking devices are everywhere. This also applies to cameras with facial recognition technology and equipment to collect and process voiceprints from citizens.

This is according to research by The New York Times. The American newspaper examined more than 100,000 documents from the Chinese government for a year. These are from the ChinaFile digital magazine of the non-profit organization Asia Society.

Establishment of a surveillance company

The papers contain information on surveillance technology supply contracts, product requirements and financial budgets. They paint a disconcerting picture of the organization of a mass surveillance society. Chinese law requires such documents to be shared publicly. In reality, they do appear on the internet but are almost impossible to find. In addition, they are often quickly removed without notice, according to The New York Times.

According to the daily, the aim of the Chinese government is crystal clear: it wants to design a system that collects as much personal information about citizens as possible as simply as possible. The government wants to know exactly where citizens are, who they are in contact with and what they do from day to day. Both in business and in their free time. In short, the government wants to establish a totalitarian regime, just as George Orwell described in his novel 1984.

‘Maximum control and mastery’

It is estimated that there are one billion surveillance cameras in circulation worldwide. Half of it is in China. For a long time, it was unclear what exactly the cameras were recording. Research by The New York Times shows that the cameras are located in strategic locations, such as restaurants, hotels, shopping centres and travel agencies.

The aim is to collect as much data as possible, such as transport flows of people and cars. In addition, many security cameras are equipped with facial recognition technology. When the images are studied, it is clear at a glance where someone was at a particular time.

The cameras also record special personal data, such as race, gender and physical characteristics. This data is merged with other data on government servers, according to The New York Times. This database, it says, contains more than 2.5 billion profile pictures. According to the police, this is to “check and control” people’s behaviour as much as possible.

Phone trackers everywhere

The Chinese government doesn’t just use cameras to closely monitor its citizens. Devices such as WiFi-Sniffers and IMSI-Catchers are also widely used. A WiFi Sniffer automatically collects and transmits data that is sent over a wireless network. An IMSI-Catcher is a device that sets up a fake network to which mobile devices connect automatically.

With these techniques, it is possible to create a profile or digital footprint of someone and follow him or her meticulously. The documents reveal that the Beijing police wanted to use these smartphone trackers to collect usernames and messages from popular Chinese social media applications. All 31 provinces and regions in China currently use these phone trackers.

Building DNA databases

The government also collects voting records on a large scale. The technology she uses is so advanced that a voice can be recorded and analyzed within a radius of 100 meters. Like the data collected through phone trackers and surveillance cameras, this information ends up in a government database.

Finally, iris scans and DNA samples are also stored in a database. An initial iris database dates back to 2017 to Xinjiang Province. This is the home of many Uyghurs, an ethnic minority that is actively monitored and imprisoned by the Chinese government. The police are investing heavily in this technology, in their own words to combat crime.

According to The New York Times, at least 25 of the 31 counties have established a DNA database.

Making the community safer

Despite the far-reaching invasion of the privacy of Chinese citizens, the surveillance system has its limitations. The documents show that the government lacks a central database and that the analytical capabilities are not yet up to scratch. President Xi Jinping is making every effort to remedy these shortcomings.

As an example, The New York Times cites Megvii, the largest security company in China. The company has developed software that allows all collected data of a citizen to be merged into one profile. Then you have to think not only about where this person goes and stands, but also about what he wears, what kind of car he drives, what devices he uses and how active he is on social media.

In a statement, Megvii said it is trying to make the community safer and is not concerned about “watching a particular group or individual”.

Concerns about Chinese cameras in the Netherlands

In the House of Representatives, there are doubts about the use of Chinese security cameras. Research by the NOS has shown that in dozens of Dutch municipalities there are Hikvision or Dahua cameras in public places and sensitive locations.

There is a fear that the manufacturers or the Chinese government can watch through the cameras. They then know exactly which dignitaries went where and when. “It is interesting for a foreign intelligence service to see who is walking in,” sinologist Ardi Bouwers told the news channel.

In March, the VVD and D66 put written questions on this subject to Minister of Justice and Security Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wopke Hoekstra. In response, the ministers wrote that they do not know how many cameras the government uses from the manufacturers. They emphasize that rules have been drawn up for the purchase and use of digital products and services. This takes into account, among other things, risks to national security.

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