Wednesday, August 13, 2008

China, the Surveillance State, and Us

As I've been watching the Olympics, and learning more about the incredibly invasive surveillance methods utilized by China's government, I got to thinking about a couple things. One, in what way are American and other nation's corporations facilitating, supplying, or enhancing these state of the art surveillance and monitoring technologies? And two, what role might these technologies - that can monitor, track, and censor nearly everyone at all times - play in our country someday?

Once I started digging, I was increasingly dismayed by what I found. As the answer to both questions were not what I wanted to find. As in, yes, American corporations are profiting off an assortment of human rights eviscerating and privacy violating technologies being utilized in China. And yes, our government, and corporations, most certainly are using China as a testing ground for which surveillance systems oppress the public and stifle dissent most effectively.

Rather than continue to pontificate on these enormously important issues, let me direct you to two outstanding articles by experts that know far more than I.

First, here's a few clips from Naomi Klein's recent expose of how China is using the Olympics - not to create a more open society - but rather to create a more oppressive one.

Klein writes:

Much of the Chinese government’s lavish spending on cameras and other surveillance gear has taken place under the banner of “Olympic Security.” But how much is really needed to secure a sporting event? The price tag has been put at a staggering $12-billion — to put that in perspective, Salt Lake City, which hosted the Winter Olympics just five months after September 11, spent $315 million to secure the games. Athens spent around $1.5-billion in 2004. Many human rights groups have pointed out that China’s security upgrade is reaching far beyond Beijing: there are now 660 designated “safe cities” across the country, municipalities that have been singled out to receive new surveillance cameras and other spy gear. And of course all the equipment purchased in the name of Olympics safety — iris scanners, “anti-riot robots” and facial recognition software — will stay in China after the games are long gone, free to be directed at striking workers and rural protesters.


There is a bitter irony here. When Beijing was awarded the games seven years ago, the theory was that international scrutiny would force China’s government to grant more rights and freedom to its people. Instead, the Olympics have opened up a backdoor for the regime to massively upgrade its systems of population control and repression. And remember when Western companies used to claim that by doing business in China, they were actually spreading freedom and democracy? We are now seeing the reverse: investment in surveillance and censorship gear is helping Beijing to actively repress a new generation of activists before it has the chance to network into a mass movement.


It’s easy to see the dangers of a high tech surveillance state in far off China, since the consequences for people like Jun are so severe. It’s harder to see the dangers when these same technologies creep into every day life closer to home-networked cameras on U.S. city streets, “fast lane” biometric cards at airports, dragnet surveillance of email and phone calls. But for the global homeland security sector, China is more than a market; it is also a showroom. In Beijing, where state power is absolute and civil liberties non-existent, American-made surveillance technologies can be taken to absolute limits.

Click here to read the rest of Klein's rather disturbing article. But unfortunately, her article only scratched the surface of the kinds of specific new technologies China is using, and where they specifically are coming from.

For that, I found a great piece by Dmitri Vitaliev, who works extensively in the human rights and independent media, entitled Corporate Complicity With the Great Firewall. As you will notice, it's not a stretch at all to believe that these very same technologies would be welcomed additions to our own surveillance state here in America.

Vitaliev writes:

A recent (non-intrusive) scan through the website of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security revealed a number of documents listing an inventory of various security technologies. One spreadsheet details software and hardware implemented for network surveillance, packet scanning and user detection. A closer inspection reveals that the Chinese internet infrastructure employs a huge array of security products, procured from companies all around the world.


Security China 2000, the largest national security exhibition, attended by the world’s most renowned IT corporations, marked a beginning of Chinese endeavours to create the world’s most sophisticated surveillance infrastructure. It was sponsored by the Chinese Public Security Bureau, the ministry in charge of policing the internet. The meeting was attended by US-based Lucent, Sun Microsystems and Cisco, European wireless giants Nokia and Ericsson, and Canada’s Nortel Networks, among many others. The main event was China’s Golden Shield Project - an ambitious plan to link China’s national and internet surveillance networks, public record databases, CCTV cameras, speech and face recognition databases, smart cards, credit records and a myriad of regional and national ministries. Their mission was to make the network “see, hear and think” in the continuing effort to solidify state control.


An enthusiastic business partner of the Chinese state apparatus has been Cisco. Notorious for its several appearances before the US House of Representatives to explain their role in supplying virtually the entire hardware on which the Golden Shield Project operates, as well as multiple systems to assist Chinese ministries responsible for catching political and social dissidents and censoring the internet. In 1997, Cisco won the contract to supply internet “firewall boxes” and, by 2006, they supplied 60% of the Chinese market for routers, switches and other sophisticated networking gear. Its estimated annual revenue from China is $500m.

In 2003, Cisco’s “Policenet” software was rolled out as the backbone of the Chinese state security system. This software, in conjunction with Intel’s fingerprint technology, is compatible with the Chinese surveillance systems and allows a policeman stopping a person on the street to scan that person’s ID card and access instantly the individual’s past political and social behaviour, family history and recent internet activity.


It is futile to argue whether western corporations are directly responsible for the uses to which China puts their technologies. Following basic free-trade principles, products are most likely sold “as is” to (rather than customised for) the Chinese government or third-party resellers. However, just as in the arms trade, these practices have led to the creation of a hostile digital environment, inhabited by Da Ge (pinyin for Big Brother). Whenever we pause to discuss or protest China’s decision to filter websites or jail Yahoo email account holders, we must bear in mind that the technology that has made this possible was built in our own backyard.

So, as we revel in the beauty, passion, and grace displayed by Olympic athletes, as well as the joy, respect, and adulation of people around the world for this event, we should also remember that just outside of our television screen's view, Big Brother is watching...and we're supplying him with the tools to do big business and the US government contemplates how we can become just as "all seeing" as China.

No comments: