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Surveillance cameras in Beijing. China is thought to deploy about 172 million such cameras and accounts for 43 per cent of a global US$47 billion business. Photo: Simon Song

The integration of mass surveillance and new digital technologies is unnerving

An infrastructure of surveillance has come up without public or political debate, and the speed and invisibility around its marriage with everyday technology is worrying

In a public toilet next to Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, it is reported that a toilet paper dispenser uses surveillance cameras to check on people stealing toilet paper.

At Peking University, a lecturer uses surveillance cameras to check whether students are bored.

It was street security cameras that identified the 2005 London Underground bomber and the 2013 Boston marathon bomber. It is satellite-based cameras that are tracking typhoons, following IS troops in Syria, watching rhino poachers in African game reserves and tracking the retreat of the Arctic ice cap.

The age of surveillance is upon us. Thanks to artificial intelligence and the burgeoning of big data as our smartphone use explodes, the space left for any individual to find any true privacy has dwindled to a shadow. George Orwell’s “Big Brother” vision has come true, and we are now in a state of permanent visibility.

Sitting here in Hong Kong, our assumption would naturally be that China leads the world in street-level surveillance. Indeed, China today is thought to deploy about 172 million surveillance cameras – about three times as many as are operating in the United States – accounting for 43 per cent of a global US$47 billion business. But on a per capita basis, the US and the UK are understood to be the most densely covered. London and the UK in many ways lead the world, with extensive street surveillance systems introduced in the early 1990s after two massive IRA truck bombings in the city’s financial district. Today, thousands of automatic number plate recognition cameras along the UK’s road network catch speeding motorists, identify expired licences and track stolen cars.

Whether these comprehensive surveillance infrastructures are a good or bad thing is moot. At the time of the London bombings, the British government won broad public support for comprehensive monitoring, using the rhetoric: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

Going back a decade, Chicago’s Mayor Daley was similarly supportive: “What cameras do is prevent crime – to tell criminals, ‘Yes, you are gonna be focused on’. There’s nothing wrong with that – to have the good citizens use our sidewalks and our parks, have our children go safely to and from school, have our families go to and from church and feel comfortable. We’re not spying on anybody. This is the public way. We’re not spying or identifying or racial profiling anyone.”

Security cameras in North London. The UK leads the world in street surveillance. Photo: Reuters

Nick Clegg, the UK’s former deputy prime minister, commented last year: “Surveillance has happened without any meaningful public or political debate whatsoever. Partly this is because we don’t have a history of fascism and non-democratic regimes, which in other countries have instilled profound suspicion of the state. Here [in the UK] it feels benign. And as we know from history, it’s benign until it isn’t.”

What worries many is not the fact of surveillance, but the process of integrating this surveillance with today’s new digital technologies, not least because this process is virtually invisible to us. As the National Geographic journalist Robert Draper noted this month: “We may well be photographed at unsettlingly close range perhaps dozens of times daily, from lenses we may never see, our image stored in databases for purposes we may never know.” He says that more than 2.5 trillion images are shared or stored on the internet every year, not counting the billions of photos and videos people keep to themselves.

What unsettles me is the speed and invisibility of these developments. For example, which of you has ever heard of a company called Planet? Based in San Francisco, it in 2013 launched four satellites for Earth observation. Founded by two ex-Nasa scientists, it today operates 202 satellites, just under 12 per cent of the 1,700 satellites orbiting Earth. It has overtaken the US government as the owner of the largest number of functioning satellites orbiting the Earth (China by comparison has 205 satellites in orbit). It can image every bit of the earth’s land mass every day.

Planet boasts it can be a force for the greater good. It can see new nuclear facilities being built in North Korea, or timber poachers at work in the Brazilian rainforest, or damage done in Mogadishu in Somalia by al-Shabab bombers.

But its work can be much more mundane and intrusive on individual privacy. For example, it has helped a Texas-based insurance company which suspected homeowners were not disclosing newly installed swimming pools when renewing insurance policies, exposing the insurer to risks it was unaware of and had not quantified. Planet’s images showed 500 swimming pools in a neighbourhood of 1,500 properties – most of them undisclosed. “People lie, you know,” said Planet’s head of customer solutions engineering.

Super Typhoon Noru photographed by a Nasa astronaut. Satellites can be used for purposes that are much more mundane and intrusive. Photo: AFP Photo / Nasa / Randy Bresnik

Do such things in China, and commentary is likely to be much less forgiving. China’s facial recognition technology now leads the world, helping police to identify and catch criminals of all kinds. These technologies are being installed in everything from airports to ATMs. They are also being introduced in smartphones for e-payments. At Kentucky Fried Chicken in Hangzhou they ask you to “smile and pay” through their face recognition camera.

The national “Xue Liang” (“Sharp Eyes” in English) project is intended to connect the security cameras that already scan roads, shopping malls and transport hubs with private cameras on compounds and buildings, and integrate them into one nationwide surveillance and data-sharing platform.

It will use facial recognition and AI to analyse and understand the mountain of incoming video information, to track suspects and spot suspicious behaviours and coordinate the work of emergency services.

It is linked with a parallel initiative to set up “social credit” scores for people based on whether the government and their fellow citizens consider them trustworthy.

China is doing nothing that other governments worldwide are not also doing, but this loss of privacy is surely unnerving. Before we are confronted with a fait accompli, should we not be asking whether it is acceptable or desirable for all of us to go around legitimately filming each other, just in case someone commits a wrong against us?

Are we better off in a world under watch? I know what George Orwell would have said.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view