Big Brother (not your neighbour) is watching

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2007, 12:00am

The surveillance camera technology of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four has finally arrived in Shenzhen. The city's police are installing 20,000 street cameras, to be equipped with face-recognition software.

They will be linked to about 180,000 existing indoor and outdoor closed-circuit TV cameras to form an integral surveillance network across the city of 12.4 million people, reports The New York Times.

But wait, it gets scarier. The city is also gradually introducing 'smart' identity cards to most residents, which will contain not only the usual personal data, but 'work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status and even landlord's phone number', says the same report. Under the one-child policy, a person's reproductive history will also be recorded in the smart card.

In other words, your past will be contained in a microchip, accessible only to a mainland law-enforcement or government agency while your presence in public places is monitored at every turn. Similar public security programmes will be introduced in large cities across the mainland as part of a nationwide drive to meld technology with police and public security work.

The official rationale for the programmes is to fight crime and to control the movements of illegal migrants, but the subtext in the Times report is obvious: to tighten control on its citizens by an authoritarian regime.

However, police cameras and face- recognition software have been in use across the US and Britain for years, even before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the so-called 'war on terror'.

A 2002 study by the University of Hull's centre for criminology and criminal justice estimated there are 4.2 million security cameras across Britain. Presumably, comparable numbers of surveillance cameras exist in the United States. And isn't it legal now for some law-enforcement agencies to intercept the e-mails and telephone calls of American citizens under a new law just passed in the US?

Interestingly, about 120,000 offenders and suspects have a global positioning system (GPS) locked to their ankles to monitor their movements in the US, according to the Journal of Offender Monitoring (yes, it's a real journal).

So, far from leading the way, the mainland is only playing catch-up with security technology, which is part of a worldwide trend that is empowering law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, and governments, around the world - be they democratic or authoritarian.

One of the scariest passages in a 2001 book called Body of Secrets, a history of the US National Security Agency by investigative journalist James Bamford, is that agency scientists are developing data-storage capacities that are millions of times more dense than today's most-advanced memory systems, in areas no larger than a pinhead. In time, data storage will, for all practical purposes, be infinite - and retrievable. You can imagine what this means for governments that are always hungry for more information about their citizens.

Actually, this kind of surveillance is old hat in communist China, the only twist being the new technology. In the olden (real) communist days, designated neighbours and workplace colleagues used to spy on your every move.

Personally, I think the new technology is a blessing. At least it makes surveillance impersonal and won't destroy neighbourly and office relationships.

You can't stop (surveillance) technology. Being a Luddite is another word for being a loser. So embrace it, but demand that you can access your own data in your smart card so you can use it to apply for a school place, a job, rent a flat, or take out an insurance policy.

It will at least save you time, if not your privacy and liberty.

Alex Lo is an editorial writer at the Post