As China expands digital surveillance, Facebook and Google risk legitimizing regime

China has made it clear it wants to know everything its citizens are doing at all times, and that it is prepared to develop the resources—whether facial-recognition software or the adoption of a “social credit” system—required to make that a reality. Both Google and Facebook have made it clear they are prepared to help. Will that encourage other countries to engage in the same kinds of surveillance?

New examples of China’s aggressive digital surveillance tactics emerge almost daily. In some cities, facial-recognition is already used to identify people who jaywalk; their names and faces are displayed on huge screens, casting shame on the perps. In other regions, police are experimenting with glasses that have facial-recognition technology, and citizens are subjected to a facial scan before they may drive on a highway or go shopping.

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In Xinjiang, a region in northwest China, Uyghur people are vulnerable to some of the most draconian measures, primarily because they are Muslim. Uyghurs must report to police how many people live in their homes and what books they read; worse, in many cases, they are also required to install tracking apps on their smartphones that monitor everything they do online.

Under the social credit system, the way a Chinese citizen behaves both on and offline—not just whether they read certain banned websites or use a VPN, but also whether they jaywalk or block the doors on the train—can make it difficult for them to do things like book transportation tickets, get their children into certain schools, and access other government services.

All of this sounds like an Orwellian nightmare. But the image of an omniscient centralized government isn’t quite accurate—even if China wishes that it were, according to Paul Mozur, a New York Times reporter who has written about China for a decade. “There’s this perception that facial recognition is already a completely mature tech and people are being mass surveilled in this really effective and efficient way, but that’s not really the case,” he says. “People invoke Orwell, where things are really centralized and well managed, but that’s not how things work in China. Everything is decentralized and not well managed at all. ”

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In some cases, says Mozur, government offices in large cities are still using paper forms, not digital databases. When it comes to facial recognition and similar technologies, there are pockets within China where local authorities are experimenting, but there is not a lot of national coordination. To some extent, he adds, the companies selling surveillance technology are making extravagant claims—that their software can identify anyone in China within a matter of seconds to a 99.9 percent degree of accuracy, for example—and the government is more than happy to give that impression to the public, as a means of scaring people into behaving properly.

“There are millions of cameras everywhere in China, but most average Chinese people don’t have the sophistication to know if they’re actually being surveilled or not, so they just kind of assume that the police know everything about them,” Mozur says. “We went to see a police department that had these facial recognition glasses, and they said they just told someone that they had them and they confessed everything. So in some cases they act basically as props.”

In China, it’s worth noting, the government doesn’t need expensive gadgets to know what most citizens are doing. Officials can get information about a person’s behavior, attitude, and location from WeChat, a social network owned by Tencent that is used by the vast majority of smartphone owners. Mozur notes, “How much do you really need a real-time facial recognition system tracking people in the subway or any of these other incredible next-generation technologies if you already have a tunnel into everyone’s smartphone?”

That’s where the help of massive social platforms like Google and Facebook could be invaluable, since each one could theoretically provide the regime with orders of magnitude more data on Chinese citizens, providing even more ways of monitoring their behavior—whether they are searching for banned terms, discussing forbidden topics, or asking the wrong questions.

Maria Repnikova, a China scholar who serves as the director of the Center for Global Information Studies at Georgia State University, warns that bowing to the country’s demands on censorship and surveillance might validate the Chinese model and encourage other totalitarian states to pursue similar measures. “The overwhelming concern about Google and Facebook is that succumbing to the Chinese government and effectively letting them win gives them legitimacy both nationally and internationally,” she says. “We are already seeing a lot of admiration for China’s model in other countries, so why wouldn’t another country ask for a version of that as well?”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.