Golden Shield – the brave new world of surveillance

The Rolling Stone has a good article (though a bit heavy on the breathless hype at times) about Golden Shield, China’s country-wide surveillance system that is in continuous development. It’s an ambitious project to pull together all sorts of data from HD-CCTV to mobile phone triangulation to Internet monitoring.

But the cameras that Zhang manufactures are only part of the massive experiment in population control that is under way here. “The big picture,” Zhang tells me in his office at the factory, “is integration.” That means linking cameras with other forms of surveillance: the Internet, phones, facial-recognition software and GPS monitoring.

One test that is about to happen (or probably already has happened) is the “10-million faces” test:

Yao is managing director of Pixel Solutions, a Chinese company that specializes in producing the new high-tech national ID cards, as well as selling facial-recognition software to businesses and government agencies. The test, the first phase of which is only weeks away, is being staged by the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing. The idea is to measure the effectiveness of face-recognition software in identifying police suspects. Participants will be given a series of photos, taken in a variety of situations. Their task will be to match the images to other photos of the same people in the government’s massive database. Several biometrics companies, including Yao’s, have been invited to compete. “We have to be able to match a face in a 10 million database in one second,” Yao tells me. “We are preparing for that now.

They can already match a face to multiple pictures of the same person in their internal database of 600,000 records in just over a millisecond.

The point of the test though is not just how bad surveillance is in China, it’s the fact that Western companies are clamouring to be involved, even using loopholes in legislation to avoid prohibitions on selling software for law enforcement use. Worse still is that post-9/11 Western obsession with surveillance has given China a golden opportunity to legitimise their own strategies:

Such efforts have provided China’s rulers with something even more valuable than surveillance technology from Western democracies: the ability to claim that they are just like us. Liu Zhengrong, a senior official dealing with China’s Internet policy, has defended Golden Shield and other repressive measures by invoking the Patriot Act and the FBI’s massive e-mail-mining operations. “It is clear that any country’s legal authorities closely monitor the spread of illegal information,” he said. “We have noted that the U.S. is doing a good job on this front.” Lin Jiang Huai, the head of China Information Security Technology, credits America for giving him the idea to sell biometric IDs and other surveillance tools to the Chinese police. “Bush helped me get my vision,” he has said. Similarly, when challenged on the fact that dome cameras are appearing three to a block in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, Chinese companies respond that their model is not the East German Stasi but modern-day London.

Sounds like a world that Eric Blair would recognise..