The issue of government applying surveillance technology on its citizens is a controversial one, even in the name of national and/or society security. Surveillance is often touted to be effective with minimum impact on privacy and individual liberty, thus it can be justified. In recent years, the technology breakthrough on voice and facial recognition, biomedical identification methods and integration of data across multiple systems collected over different social conditions, for example, from transportation (land, sea and air), geography (cities and nations)and social events (shopping, sports and gathering) have created big data useful for solving crimes and maintaining security. However, the forces that protest against surveillance are generally based on more than invasion of privacy and violation of human rights and personal liberty, particularly political rights.
Ever since Edward Snowden blew a whistle on NSA in 2013, the government surveillance issue has become a public concern, between nations and among citizens in the U.S. The U.S. Congress has allowed the government to access commercial customer data on a need basis which means the government can have access to private data collected by IT, telecommunication or social media corporations in the name of national security. Today the general public is basically resigned to the idea that if one was not a criminal or not plotting anything evil against the government or the public would have no fear of government’s access of your private data. Therefore, this sentiment is generally prevalent about government surveillance; most ordinary citizens should have no fear. In fact, the surveillance technology has grown to be a significant industry today with public surveillance systems mushroomed in public schools, towns and institutions. This happened along with several school and public shooting incidences occurred.
Video camera is still the most prevailing surveillance device in the world. According to a report by the Business Insider and Comparitech, the city having the most public cameras is Chongqing City in China, 165 cameras per 1000 people (note: Chongqing is a complex mountain city with over 30.5 million people and a complex multi-level highway system). Second place is Shenzhen, 159 cameras per 1000 for 12.5 million people, 6th place London, 68.4 per 1000 for 9 million people, 10th place Atlanta, 16 per 1000 for less than 0.5 million people, 9th place Beijing, 39.5 per 1000 for 20 million people, 11th place Singapore, 15 per 1000 for 5.6 million people, 13th Chicago, 13 per 1000 for 2.7 million people and 14th Urumqi, 12.4 per 1000 for 3.5 million people. From the above data, one can draw the following conclusions: 1. Per-capita public camera usage has a big jump when population exceeds 7 or 8 million. 2. Beijing as a capital of 20 million ranked much lower in camera surveillance compared to other big cities such as Chongqing, Shenzhen, Shanghai and London. 3. Urumqi, a predominant Muslim population is less under surveillance than Atlanta or Singapore, which dispels the Western media’s portrayal of Urumqi being a highly suppressed city in China.
The effect of surveillance has a pro and con interpretation. The anti-authoritarianism is battling the authoritarianism in the interpretation in that the former claims that the latter around the globe are accelerating their efforts to institutionalize cultures of surveillance and control. However, the positive effect is clearly seen in surveillance such that the more surveillance efforts do improve more safety and security all over the world, as people, domestic and foreign, living in Shenzhen, Shanghai and many big cities in China and in the U.S. have testified in interviews by media. The nay-sayer often cites civil right and political right violations but with few concrete evidence and proof. Another corollary data, although not specifically quantified, is the increasing number of private surveillance devices used by citizens; it is clear that the higher crime cities in the U.S. do use far more surveillance cameras, burglar alarms and motion and thermo-sensors in their private residences than anywhere else. Therefore it is comical that the U.S. would use surveillance to mock China as an authoritarian police state while one actually does not see more police force in Chinese cities than in US cities. For example, the recent Hong Kong violence clearly demonstrated that the Hong Kong police was far too mellow in dealing with violent protestors compared to that in the U.S., U.K. or France. The Chinese Central Government, in honoring “the one-China-two-systems”, essentially leaves the Hong Kong matter to Hong Kong people to resolve.
However, we do hope that the violent acts in Hong Kong were recorded in cameras so that the criminals who had burned and damaged properties would be put to justice. In fact, the research division of the CIA wants AI enhanced facial recognition technology that can identify people from hundreds of yards away, using integrated data of multiple types of identifiers, such as voices, faces, movement patterns, height and gender as well as using cameras on distant rooftops or even on drones to enhance the government’s ability to monitor enemies and potential criminals. According to a report on the Internet, China’s All Seeing Eye, by Naomi Klein, 5/29/2008, China was developing a face recognition software using a software development kit licensed from a US defense contractor. Now China has developed the most advanced facial recognition technology. The West is accusing China for using the surveillance technology to control her people but China claims that she is using it to assure State security and maintain law and order. Putting this kind of government or official rhetoric aside, what the people feel is not too different in the U.S. and China, that is, if you were not a criminal or not plotting against the government, you would have nothing to fear from the State surveillance. This is the sentiment of the majority of people in either China or the U.S.
With the overall advances in technology, Internet (5G), computer, and sensing and data capturing devices, it is now more possible to expand and integrate the previously separate recognition and identification systems involving biometrics, ID cards, CCTV, driving records pertaining to vehicles, licenses and toll charges, transportation data involving ticket purchasing and passport, and communication involving phone calls, social media and any communication (email and computer conversations) intercepts to produce a comprehensive integrated and effective surveillance and monitoring system. Such a system permits data-sharing across several system/data boundaries which were less penetrable in the past. This includes all government centralized activities through CIA, FBI or the like and all ‘innocent’ consumer or citizen daily activities; all data are collected in the effort to make the society safe and secure.
Therefore, as long as the rampant world terrorism, drug epidemic caused crimes and random violent killings in our streets, schools and cities exist, it compels us to accept government surveillance as a legal protection, in the U.S. or in China, just like we must pay a premium to buy an insurance policy for protection against car accidents, fire hazards, sicknesses or death.