By Charlotte Lee
According to the estimates of business consulting company IHS Markhit, China’s image surveillance market was valued at USD $6.4 billion (NTD $198.3 billion) in 2016. As of today, China’s image surveillance market is already the largest in the world, but by 2021, its annual growth rate is expected to reach 12.4 percent.
Meanwhile, the U.S. market is only valued at USD $2.9 billion (NTD $87.8 billion) with an annual growth rate of 0.7 percent.
The Chinese government wants to start tracking consumer spending and internet activity, in addition to creating a system of “social credit”. As a result of government encouragement, both domestic and foreign investors have invested in developing new surveillance technology such as SenseTime, Face++ and DeepGlint. These facial recognition technologies allow machines to scan complex facial characteristics such as eye distance and cheekbone curvature. Sequoia Capital, in particular, a venture capital company in Silicon Valley, has spent a lot of money on these Chinese companies.
A reporter from Reuters questioned Sequoia Capital on the matters of privacy violation, but did not receive much response. Xie Yinan, the director of public relations and marketing, said. “We are just technology providers. We are neutral. If you go back to the days prior to the invention of mobile phone and the Internet, of course you had more privacy. But times progress with technology.”
However, many Chinese citizens have beliefs that do not align with Xie’s philosophy. Despite changing times, Wan Shengjin, a professor at the Department of Electronic Engineering at Tsinghua University in China, said, “I think there is an issue of both safety and privacy in people’s lives. When the two conflict, the Chinese people will ultimately be more concerned about safety.”
While a surveillance state may still seem futuristic, China has already implemented multiple platforms that are scarily Orwellian. For instance, China’s “Golden Shield” surveillance system prohibits websites such as Google, Facebook, and The New York Times. Alibaba has created an app called “Sesame Credit” that provides citizen credit and character ratings, and are required to share their data with the government. People are also held accountable for any controversial political content they post on social media, including encrypted apps such as Whatsapp. In July, the government plans to implement “safety requirements” for cars which require the installation of radio frequency chips on the windshield of the vehicle. In 2019, all purchased cars will come with this GPS system pre-installed. In the Western region of Xinjiang, inhabited by the Uighurs, police officers are permitted to perform random phone checks for banned apps; these systems have been responsible for the arrest of multiple Chinese citizens.
The basis of a surveillance state is “If you have nothing to fear, you have nothing to hide”. Governments argue that watching its citizens is in their best interest, because they only watch to protect. The person who is watching you on the other end of things may even be a stranger who cares little about your personal life and will never reveal your secrets to those who do. But privacy invasion isn’t a simple as that. Once we know that our choices are observed and dissected under the careful eye of a powerful government, we don’t forget that we are being watched. Those choices are no longer truly our own, and instead, we avoid controversy. Out of fear, we steer clear of risk. Intellectual discussion dies out, as there is no longer a gray area, only black and white.
Knowing that they are being watched, citizens become mere pawns of their observers. Even with nothing to hide, authoritative omniscience causes people to view the government as invincible, unsurmountable, and their own beliefs small, insignificant. And if people no longer believe that their thoughts and opinions are capable of affecting change, overcoming something bigger than themselves, then what use are they?