The costs of Chinese surveillance technology will be borne by Western democracies

Technology once promised to give China’s rising middle class an easier life. But as companies bring productivity-enhancing tools into society, their efficiency is being channelled into a system of universal surveillance instead of increased personal freedoms.

In China’s booming technology sector, it has become commonplace for employees to have surveillance software called DiSanZhiYan, or “Third Eye,” watching over their screens in real time, recording conversations, browsing activity, and every document edit made. High-definition surveillance cameras track employees, with a dedicated receptionist checking the footage every day to monitor how long each employee spent on their lunch break, bathroom trip, and in some cases, where they travel to on rare days off.

The biggest tech companies in China, locked in cut-throat competition for new business opportunities, are pioneering the emerging surveillance systems used not only in their own operations, but to serve as the backbone for China’s “digital silk road.” Last year, President Xi Jinping encouraged south-east Asian countries to help roll out the road, an initiative that falls under the broad BRI umbrella and is charged with promoting the adoption of Chinese “safe” and “smart” city tech — such as facial recognition systems, big data analysis, 5G telecoms and AI cameras — around the world.

According to research by RWR Advisory, a Washington-based consultancy, Chinese companies have completed 116 deals to install smart city and safe city packages around the world since 2013. Securing these vendor contracts is part of the larger intensifying geopolitical battleground of technological values, a much overlooked yet crucial aspect of a new struggle for global influence between China and the US.

If the cold war was dominated by a race to build the most nuclear weapons, the contest between the West and China will partly be played out through a struggle to control the norms that will govern how technology is used in the future.

Potential security threats are central to the stand-off. US President Joe Biden signed an executive order earlier this month expanding a Trump-era ban on Americans investing in Chinese companies with purported ties to China’s military. Vincent Manancourt and Mark Scott of POLITICO have cautioned Europe on the risks of using Chinese surveillance equipment and systems.

Though present across the EU, there is increasing resistance to Chinese state-owned Hikvision, the world’s largest manufacturer of video surveillance equipment, in light of reports that its technology has been used to oppress China’s Uighur Muslim minority — a charge the company denies.

The Wall Street Journal reports that in Xinjiang the government has woven a web of surveillance, with checkpoints, high-definition cameras, facial scanners and street patrols; the region spent $9.1 billion on domestic security in 2017, a 92% increase from 2016, according to local government budget data.

Perhaps emboldened at home, the CCP has a lengthening track record of employing sophisticated surveillance systems abroad to monitor those living beyond the legal jurisdiction of the CCP. Last year, a database of information collected by a Beijing-linked Australian company was leaked to a US academic. It showed that 2.4 million people around the world deemed influential or dangerous to the CCP have been targeted, with dossiers including dates of birth, addresses, marital status, photographs, political associations, relatives, and social media IDs. More worryingly, researchers found that up to 20 per cent of the data was not made publicly available, meaning it may have been obtained on the dark web or through hacking.

The academic who obtained the data, Professor Chris Balding, says it shows China’s ambition to create a “global authoritarian techno surveillance state.” He went on to state that “open liberal societies fail to grasp the threats embodied in Chinese authoritarian communism by ignoring non-traditional warfare and influence operations.”

Through concerted, long-term hacking and lobbying campaigns, the CCP has orchestrated serious human rights abuses abroad as a form of “psychological warfare” to manipulate both public opinion and the attitudes of influential figures in Western political circles.

One such example of this brand of attack is US-based dissident Guo Wengui, AKA Miles Kwok, who has been the subject of a long-term espionage campaign resulting in several attempts by Beijing to bribe individuals close to the US administration to pressure the government into deporting him back to China. Closer to home, the Chinese government has detained several foreigners in Hong Kong on national security charges in recent months, including a prominent American lawyer.

Mark Warner, Democratic vice-chair of the US Senate intelligence committee, has argued that the West is passively promoting such CCP abuses by allowing Beijing to control the next generation of digital infrastructure. What will come next, he warns, is the imposition of principles that are antithetical to Western values of transparency, diversity of opinion, interoperability, and respect for human rights.

As Werner von Siemens, the 19th-century German technological pioneer and founder of the Siemens conglomerate, once said: “He who owns the standards, owns the market.” But for China, the market is inseparable from politics. Profit and reputation are not the only things at stake if the CCP continues to export its techno-authoritarianism abroad: next it will be our democratic freedom.

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