Big Brother in China

August 23, 2007

China has launched an ambitious "Big Brother" surveillance programme using everything from closed circuit television systems that can recognise faces, to identity card computer chips to monitor its population.1

In Shenzhen, a city of 12.4 million people located at the border with Hong Kong, residency cards to be issued to most citizens are being fitted with computer chips that include not just the citizen's name and address but also their work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status and landlord's phone number.2

"If they do not get the permanent card, they cannot live here, they cannot get government benefits, and that is a way for the government to control the population in the future," says Michael Lin, vice president for investor relations at China Public Security Technology.3

In addition, the local police will install at least 20,000 new security cameras which have the ability to recognize people's faces.4

Every patrolling police officer in Shenzhen now carries global positioning satellite equipment on his or her belt. This allows senior police officers to track and direct their movement on a large high-resolution map of the city.5

Security experts describe China's plans as the world's largest effort to meld cutting-edge computer technology with police work to track the activities of a population and fight crime, but they say the technology can be used to violate civil rights.6 Given that China does not have an independent judiciary, there are no checks on the state's authority.

Construction of the entire Shenzhen Residence Card program is expected to take three years, commencing in the third quarter of 2007. If successful, the system may be extended to 660 cities across China.7

Lin Jiang Huai, the business executive who runs China Public Security Technology, said the success of U.S. technology during the invasion of Iraq is what inspired him to develop this type of software.8

If all of this sounds like something out of George Orwell's novel 1984, then you may be correct:

"There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."
- 1984, Part 1, Chapter 1

1. "China's 'Big Brother surveillance' to dwarf UK", Beijing Correspondent, August 20, 2007

2. "China's super surveillance system", Bangkok Lifestyle Magazine, August 12, 2007

3. "Big Brother gets high-tech help in Shenzhen", International Herald Tribune, August 12, 2007

4. "China Plays Big Brother With Over 20,000 Security Cameras in Shenzhen", Daily Tech, August 13, 2007

5. "Big Brother jumps onto world scene from Shenzhen, China", Canada Free Press, August 13, 2007

6. "Big Brother gets high-tech help in Shenzhen", International Herald Tribune, August 12, 2007

7. "China Public Security Technology Wins Phase I of the ShenzhenCity Residence Card Information Management System Project", China Public Security Technology, July 27, 2007

8. "Iraq invasion inspired Chinese tycoon to develop software for police work", International Herald Tribune, August 12, 2007