‘Surveillance State’ explores China’s tech and social media control systems

by | Sep 7, 2022 | Top Stories

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St. Martin’s Press

During one of my last reporting trips in China, I booked my plane tickets on the drive to the airport. Instead of checking into a hotel, which in China requires turning in a passport scan that is sent straight to the local police, I decided to fly in as early as possible, finish all my reporting in the same day, and return that very night. I randomly found a driver outside the airport — she even helpfully jumped into translate the beguiling local dialect for me. By nightfall, I was on a flight back to Beijing with all of my reporting safely stored on several microSD cards. Success, I thought. The next morning, my contact called me in a panic. Several local officials had visited his home after our meeting and threatened him. I was disappointed, but also confused: How had China’s security apparatus managed to track down my whereabouts so quickly? Josh Chin’s and Liza Lin’s new book, Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control, attempts to answer that question. The two veteran Wall Street Journal reporters spent years covering China’s political and technological rise. They draw on that experience to untangle how China built its formidable digital surveillance apparatus (plot spoiler: in conjunction with American companies) and the often-erroneous assumptions that underpin its application, with disastrous consequences.

Chin and Lin describe how authorities utilize a sophisticated national database linking identification documents, facial recognition data, fingerprints, and travel history (including, most likely, mine). A second, more powerful layer of scrutiny is China’s vast network of CCTV cameras, whose footage is analyzed in real time by artificial intelligence software sold by a host of Chinese companies like Huawei, Sensetime, Megvii, and China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC). Unconstrained by China’s weak legal system and a nascent digital privacy code, China’s tech giants and security apparatus are able to track phones, monitor online purchases, and decrypt messages. The idea — pioneered by foundational Chinese scientific thinkers like Qian Xuesen — is that harnessing vast inputs of behavioral data can create predictive policing and safe, stable societies. With the reams of big data generated by China’s more than one billion mobile internet users, that vision is now reality. The founder and chairman of e-commerce giant Alibaba, Jack Ma, is quoted in Surveillance State as saying during a 2015 talk attended by high-level security officials, “Whoever owns enough data and computing ability can predict problems, predict the future, and judge th …

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