Surveillance cameras stand next to the figurines on a main entrance gate of the Imperial Ancestral Temple, or Taimiao next to the Forbidden City in Beijing, Sept. 17, 2017.

Surveillance cameras stand next to the figurines on a main entrance gate of the Imperial Ancestral Temple, or Taimiao next to the Forbidden City in Beijing, Sept. 17, 2017. Andy Wong/AP

China's Surveillance State Should Scare Everyone

The country is perfecting a vast network of digital espionage as a means of social control—with implications for democracies worldwide.

Imagine a society in which you are rated by the government on your trustworthiness. Your “citizen score” follows you wherever you go. A high score allows you access to faster internet service or a fast-tracked visa to Europe. If you make political posts online without a permit, or question or contradict the government’s official narrative on current events, however, your score decreases. To calculate the score, private companies working with your government constantly trawl through vast amounts of your social media and online shopping data.

When you step outside your door, your actions in the physical world are also swept into the dragnet: The government gathers an enormous collection of information through the video cameras placed on your street and all over your city. If you commit a crime—or simply jaywalk—facial recognition algorithms will match video footage of your face to your photo in a national ID database. It won’t be long before the police show up at your door.

This society may seem dystopian, but it isn’t farfetched: It may be China in a few years. The country is racing to become the first to implement a pervasive system of algorithmic surveillance. Harnessing advances in artificial intelligence and data mining and storage to construct detailed profiles on all citizens, China’s communist party-state is developing a “citizen score” to incentivize “good” behavior. A vast accompanying network of surveillance cameras will constantly monitor citizens’ movements, purportedly to reduce crime and terrorism. While the expanding Orwellian eye may improve “public safety,” it poses a chilling new threat to civil liberties in a country that already has one of the most oppressive and controlling governments in the world.

China’s evolving algorithmic surveillance system will rely on the security organs of the communist party-state to filter, collect, and analyze staggering volumes of data flowing across the internet. Justifying controls in the name of national security and social stability, China originally planned to develop what it called a “Golden Shield” surveillance system allowing easy access to local, national, and regional records on each citizen. This ambitious project has so far been mostly confined to a content-filtering Great Firewall, which prohibits foreign internet sites including Google, Facebook, and The New York Times. According to Freedom House, China’s level of internet freedom is already the worst on the planet. Now, the Communist Party of China is finally building the extensive, multilevel data-gathering system it has dreamed of for decades.

While the Chinese government has long scrutinized individual citizens for evidence of disloyalty to the regime, only now is it beginning to develop comprehensive, constantly updated, and granular records on each citizen’s political persuasions, comments, associations, and even consumer habits. The new social credit system under development will consolidate reams of records from private companies and government bureaucracies into a single “citizen score” for each Chinese citizen. In its comprehensive 2014 planning outline, the CCP explains a goal of “keep[ing] trust and constraints against breaking trust.” While the system is voluntary for now, it will be mandatory by 2020. Already, 100,000 Chinese citizens have posted on social media about high scores on a “Sesame Credit” app operated by Alibaba, in a private-sector precursor to the proposed government system. The massive e-commerce conglomerate claims its app is only tracking users’ financial and credit behavior, but promises to offer a “holistic rating of character.” It is not hard to imagine many Chinese boasting soon about their official scores.

While it isn’t yet clear what data will be considered, commentators are already speculating that the scope of the system will be alarmingly wide. The planned “citizen credit” score will likely weigh far more data than the Western fico score, which helps lenders make fast and reliable decisions on whether to extend financial credit. While the latter simply tracks whether you’ve paid back your debts and managed your money well, experts on China and internet privacy have speculated—based on the vast amounts of online shopping data mined by the government without regard for consumer privacy—that your Chinese credit score could be higher if you buy items the regime likes—like diapers—and lower if you buy ones it doesn’t, like video games or alcohol. Well beyond the realm of online consumer purchasing, your political involvement could also heavily affect your score: Posting political opinions without prior permission or even posting true news that the Chinese government dislikes could decrease your rank.

Even more worrying is that the government will be technically capable of considering the behavior of a Chinese citizen’s friends and family in determining his or her score. For example, it is possible that your friend’s anti-government political post could lower your own score. Thus, the scoring system would isolate dissidents from their friends and the rest of society, rendering them complete pariahs. Your score might even determine your access to certain privileges taken for granted in the U.S., such as a visa to travel abroad or or even the right to travel by train or plane within the country. One internet privacy expert warns: “What China is doing here is selectively breeding its population to select against the trait of critical, independent thinking.”

While Westerners and especially civil liberties groups like the ACLU are horrified by such a prospect—one commentator called the possibility “authoritarianism, gamified”—others argue that because lack of trust is a serious problem in China, many Chinese welcome this potential system. However, a state-run, party-inspired, data-driven monitoring system poses profound questions for the West about the role of private companies in government surveillance. Is it ethical for private companies to assist in massive surveillance and turn over their data to the government? Alibaba (China’s Amazon) and Tencent (owner of the popular messaging platform WeChat) possess sweeping data on each Chinese citizen that the government would have to mine to calculate scores. Although Chinese companies now are required to assist in government spying while U.S. companies are not, it is possible to imagine Amazon in Alibaba’s position, or Facebook in place of Tencent. While private companies like credit scoring bureaus have always used data to measure consumers’ creditworthiness, in any decent society there must be a clear distinction between private-sector and public-sector scoring mechanisms that could determine access to citizen rights and privileges, without recourse.

This planned data-focused social credit system is only one facet of China’s rapidly expanding system of algorithmic surveillance. Another is a sprawling network of technologies, especially surveillance cameras, to monitor people’s physical movements. In 2015, China’s national police force—the Ministry of Public Safety—called for the creation of an “omnipresent, completely connected, always on and fully controllable” national video surveillance network. MPS and other agencies stated that law enforcement should use facial recognition technology in combination with the video cameras to catch lawbreakers. One IHS Markit estimate puts the number of cameras in China at 176 million today, with a plan to have 450 million installed by 2020. One hundred percent of Beijing is now blanketed by surveillance cameras, according to the Beijing Public Safety Bureau.

The stated goal of this system is to capture and deter criminals. However, it also poses obvious and massive risks to privacy and the modicum of freedom Chinese citizens have managed to gain since the Maoist era. The penalties for small crimes seem unreasonable: Authorities in Fuzhou are publishing the names of jaywalkers in local media and even sending them to their employers. More ominous, though, are the likely punishments that will be inflicted on people who associate with dissidents or critics, who circulate a petition or hold up a protest sign, or who simply wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thus, the installation of an all-seeing-eye for the government alarms civil liberties and privacy advocates worldwide. The government already constantly monitors the cell phones and social media of human-rights activists in the name of “stability maintenance.” A video surveillance system would enable further pervasive and repressive surveillance. Making streams publicly available, too, would threaten every citizen’s privacy: A busybody neighbor could easily spy on the activities of the family next door as they run errands or go on vacation.

China’s experiments with digital surveillance pose a grave new threat to freedom of expression on the internet and other human rights in China. Increasingly, citizens will refrain from any kind of independent or critical expression for fear that their data will be read or their movements recorded—and penalized—by the government. And that is exactly the point of the program. Moreover, what emerges in China will not stay in China. Its repressive technologies have a pattern of diffusing to other authoritarian regimes around the world. For this reason—not to mention concern for the hundreds of millions of people in China whose meager freedom will be further diminished—democracies around the world must monitor and denounce this sinister creep toward an Orwellian world.