Surveillance, Technology, and China

When I read George Orwell in B form, I found it unfathomable that such a reality could ever exist. It seemed very disconnected from reality- an outlandish proposition. However, last Sunday, I felt the Orwellian reality reach across the pages of the book, jump over from the side of fiction and enter my life. For the first time, I had to engage with the possibility of such a reality. Whenever I read about an ‘Orwellian reality’ in the media, at worst, I treated as a bunch of garbage stemming from paranoia and, at best, as a cautionary tale. 

In China, however, it may just be becoming a reality. Everyone knows that China is one of the most oppressive country’s in the world, with one of the largest surveillance networks. However, developments in artificial intelligence have taken this to a new level. In the city of Xianyang, the Chinese government can monitor your every move. 

Xianyang has been in the news for being the epicentre of a human rights crises. The city has a majority of Uyghurs Muslims as its citizens, who have had a long-standing conflict with the Chinese government. The Chinese communist party has always been suspicious of religion, and religious practices had been banned till 1978. In the city of Xianyang, the Chinese government have deployed artificial intelligence, data collection and mass surveillance to monitor the Uyghur Muslim and specifically target them. To put in context, if you were to go from your home to the grocery store, the Chinese government would know whether you left the house through the front or the back door, if you left your lights on, if you stopped at a gas station on the way there, and if you filled gas in your own car or somebody else’s, what you bought at the store and a long list of other things. This may seem unbelievable at first, but it is true. The Chinese government has even planned a roll out for the full country in the coming decade. 

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Chinese government has designed a system known as the social credit system. The system gives individuals a citizen score which is representative of how good a citizen they have been. A higher score would mean lower bus fares and access to reserved parking spots. If you score lower, you would not be allowed to buy a train or flight ticket. The social credit system evaluates all parts of your life and passes a judgement upon whether you have been a good citizen. The system would reward you for being a good neighbour or using public transport rather than a car, but more maliciously, it would also reward you for supporting the government and following traditional Chinese values. Chinese control over personal life has always been extreme; however, this takes it to a new level. The government can use the massive our online presence and run it through artificial intelligence algorithms to weed out dissenters and political opponents. In the future, it may even be possible for artificial intelligence to predict who is likely to oppose the government by examining their shopping habits, texts on Wechat, social media profiles and the hundreds of other materials posted online. In the past, the danger of corporations and governments stealing our data seemed irrelevant to me. I thought it was ridiculous that Google would care that I went to the mall today, and while this may still be true in democratic nations but in totalitarian regimes, it can be dangerous. The worst part is that this system can be exported to other totalitarian regimes such as North Korea, helping them maintain their power. 

The purpose of this article was is not to frighten readers, however, to make them aware of the current situation. I do not expect anyone to stop using Instagram or Google after reading this article but rather understand the consequences of our data falling into the wrong hands. Paradoxically, the very internet that has liberated us can also be the cause of our oppression. 

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