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China technology

China’s Sharp Eyes surveillance system puts the security focus on public shaming

  • Security becomes spectacle as surveillance system is rolled out in rural Chinese villages
  • Proponents say cameras are beating crime; human rights groups claim they threaten civil liberties
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 3:20pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 3:40pm

When a resident of Anxi village in China’s southwest Sichuan province set fire to a pile of rubbish two years ago, a loudspeaker barked his name and ordered him to put the blaze out. He extinguished the flames and scuttled away.

He had been caught on a surveillance camera, monitored around the clock on one of 16 screens in the village security control room.

“Everyone knew who the culprit was, so he would never dare to do that again,” said the local Communist Party secretary, Yin Xiuqin, 55.

The surveillance video in Anxi is also broadcast to cellphones and some televisions – placing busybodies on the front line of local security.

People know they are always being watched. Fear of shaming is the essence of Sharp Eyes – or Xue Liang – a project being tested in 50 towns as part of what will become a nationwide system.

The name appears to be drawn from a Mao-era slogan aimed at encouraging people to denounce those who failed to follow the Communist Party creed: “The people have sharp eyes.”

China has an estimated 176 million public and private surveillance cameras, including on every block in Beijing. As more are installed in rural areas and the technology becomes more sophisticated, with the ability to recognise faces and a person’s gait, China is poised to overtake Britain as the world’s most monitored society.

The government website of one district – Liuhe, in the eastern province of Jiangsu – boasted that security cameras would “cover everything, with no blind spots”.

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The goal is to catch criminals and operate alongside another project, known as the social credit system, which will collect data from police, hospitals, schools, banks and other institutions – and possibly social media – and use it to rank the trustworthiness of citizens and, according to official planning documents, create a more honest society.

People will be judged not only on whether they pay bills and taxes and obey the traffic regulations and other laws, but also potentially on social behaviour such as how well they care for their parents.

The final shape of the penalty-and-reward system has not been decided, but those who score poorly could be prevented from travelling, denied stays at good hotels or educating their children at leading schools, among other measures, according to the government’s planning documents, while those with good scores will be rewarded.

More than 10 million people who failed to follow court orders have already been blacklisted.

The system may also be a way to cut corruption in China’s vast government bureaucracy and prevent scandals such as the breaching of food and drug quality standards or the dumping of toxic waste in rivers.

Human rights groups say the system also could be used to track dissidents and other critics of the government. Under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, internet censorship has increased, freedom of speech has narrowed, protests have been swiftly stopped, and hundreds of unapproved non-governmental organisations have been shut down.

“Extending surveillance to the local level, and maybe even into people’s homes, is not for safety but for control,” said Frances Eve of the Hong Kong office of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. “The government claims such programmes are designed to catch criminals or keep people safe, but police treat those that exercise basic civil liberties like peaceful assembly or freedom of association as criminals.”

Human Rights Watch has called China’s surveillance and social credit systems “dystopian” and warned of their “ominous consequences” for human rights.

Campaigners are especially concerned about intense surveillance in Xinjiang region, where the United Nations reported that as many as a million members of Muslim minority groups have been detained in re-education camps that the government describes as vocational training centres.

“Tibetans, Uygurs and other minorities are treated with suspicion and subjected to racially based surveillance because of their ethnicity,” Eve said.

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Officials and citizens in places that are testing Sharp Eyes say they like it because it has cut crime.

In Jiantai village, in Sichuan, officials said that thieves once targeted the area before festivals to steal prized home-cured hams. It happened about 10 times a year.

The camera system cut that to five cases in 2016 and zerolast year, according to village official Zhang Dabing.

Early last year, a man browsing security video on his mobile phone saw a villager pull a knife on a neighbour. He called the police, who rushed to the scene and broke up the fight before anyone was hurt, Zhang said.

“The village is developing a group of volunteers who are very passionate about having a peaceful neighbourhood,” he said. “We are developing them as active monitors.”

Nearby Shanghe village has 90 households and eight surveillance cameras.

In his living room, Yeng Linquan showed off his television where he can tune in to local surveillance cameras at any time.

“It’s supplied by the government and we pay no fees,” he said.

If he wants to call the police, he presses a green button on his TV remote control, alerting whoever is on patrol, a duty that rotates among the families.

“I feel it’s pretty useful,” Yeng said. “In the past there was a lot of theft. They were stealing chickens, ducks, pigs, oil and that kind of thing.

“But since the government installed Sharp Eyes I see no stealing.”

Villagers had been warned not to call police unless they had solid evidence, he said, “or we will be given a verbal warning”.

The technology is rapidly advancing, and some cities are already using cameras that recognise faces and read car licence plate numbers. Beijing has such systems in airports and railway stations and has announced plans to install one in the city’s subway.

On three occasions in April and May, police used such a system to detain alleged criminals in crowds of up to 60,000 attending concerts by Hong Kong pop star Jacky Cheung. One of the detainees was accused of failing to pay US$17,000 for a load of potatoes three years ago.

Technology that uses artificial intelligence to comb through mountains of surveillance data is rapidly improving.

Police in the city of Guangzhou have made 800 arrests and solved more than 100 crimes in the last year using a system that recognises faces and compares them to a police database in near real time, according to Sensetime, the company that developed the technology.

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Back in Anxi village, Yin showed off the village control room with its 16 screens.

She was especially proud of some cameras that are equipped with loudspeakers.

“If there is anything to tell the villagers, we can broadcast the announcement through this speaker,” Yin said. “This blue camera and loudspeaker is versatile, not only for security monitoring, but also for environmental sanitation monitoring, managing illegal parking and vendors occupying the road.”

She said the cameras missed nothing, not even people who parked illegally or dumped rubbish. In two years, she said, crime, which usually amounted to petty theft and an occasional assault, had dropped to zero.

Residents shrugged off any concern about intrusion.

One man said the system helped when his daughter disappeared for a few hours one day. He tapped into surveillance cameras on his phone and found many children playing. There she was.

Few people wanted to be quoted by name on the subject, and local officials were reluctant to discuss it with foreigners. Yin’s openness about it was rare – and, it turned out, short-lived.

About 40 minutes into the interview, her phone rang. It was her boss.

Yin apologised and said she was not allowed to discuss Sharp Eyes with foreigners.