Theresa May's China trade mission suggests closer surveillance links

British prime minister Theresa May recently led a trade mission along with 50 executives and university representatives to China to meet with president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang. The stated purpose of the trip was to foster UK-China relations particularly focused on the post-Brexit landscape.

When she returned there was a curious note of thanks from the Chinese-nationalist tabloid Global Times, a media outlet which is considered to reflect the position of the government without the complications official statements might bring.

In an editorial titled 'Sino-UK partnership transcends media mudslinging over human rights', the paper opined that sidestepping the topic of human rights was beneficial for relations between the future of the two countries. But it was something that May had previously promised to do.

Perhaps the two states can find agreement here - after all, Theresa May has clearly signposted her detestation for human rights. In any case, the mission represented a willingness from both parties to ramp up trade and business after Brexit.

In surveillance, Britain and China have much more in common than many people might realise. Chinese AI-enabled facial recognition surveillance systems recently received widespread attention and evoked an image of a techno-futurist surveillance state. But is it really a world away from Britain?

Adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Xiao Qiang, teaches a course in digital activism and specialises in technology and human rights, China, censorship, surveillance and information politics. In a recent telephone interview with Techworld he outlined the present situation in China, and detailed how advances in AI, big data analytics, and facial recognition can be used to create oppressive structures.

"My main question right now is how this new wave of technology – cloud computing, artificial intelligence, big data, will enhance the capacity for the Chinese regime to sustain its control," Xiao said.

According to Xiao, the Chinese government is actively encouraging developments in big data, artificial intelligence, and facial recognition programmes.

Like the split atom, technology itself is neutral but the way it is used and what it is used for depends largely on the goals of the people applying it. Xiao believes that the tremendous advances being made in AI and big data could even lead to a "digital totalitarian state". And he wonders what the implications for the rest of the world could be, remarking that it is an "open question" whether countries in the west follow suit.

"The Chinese government always worries about mass incidents or collective action, street action," he says. "But what big data and artificial intelligence and facial recognition does, it brings the ability to process a large amount of surveillance camera-cached information – so for example an entire Chinese city with millions of cameras. And, to identify individuals, since now with the mobile phone app – WeChat – the Chinese citizens are more and more using facial recognition as part of their biometrics."

Much of this data is concentrated within two businesses: Tencent, which runs WeChat, and Alibaba, which runs AliPay. Xiao argues that accessing this data is not a challenge for the Chinese government, and at least in the case of WeChat, that platform is becoming more popular in countries outside of China too.

"They can integrate surveillance data together with the citizen's private data, becoming a social control system," says Xiao. "These are the possibilities."

Combining all of this creates a new question: will the state be able to use this to not only gather routine surveillance on individuals, but to gain the ability to predict and forecast the possibilities of social movements or civil action.

This could be "micro-targeted to individuals", with "tailored punishment" or creating incentives for people to behave in certain ways.

"WeChat already has quite a sophisticated automated database monitoring system, they can target the IP, who publishes content, the keywords of the content, picture recognition in the content," he says. "WeChat already has these things developed."

But is all this really so different to the situation in the UK – or the behaviour of hundreds of millions of consumers who willingly hand over extremely sensitive data over to the likes of Facebook and Snapchat (no matter how often these companies have publicly promised to be better on privacy)? Or the simple act of using Google – now collaborating with the American military in a drone programme? Or using Amazon, which is now working closely with the CIA?

Or the fact that the British government recently gathered the surveillance industry to discuss its options for a post-Brexit hard border?

Edin Omanovic, who leads surveillance technology investigations at Privacy International, agrees that there is a parallel that can be drawn between facial recognition capabilities through consumer applications in China and the closeness of governments to Silicon Valley companies that are more popular in the west.

"A lot of companies from every sector have access to personal data which the government wants," Omanovic says, speaking with Techworld. "So we have seen a few examples where a company resists government demands – for example with the FBI and Apple last year.

"But also some cases where companies are providing governments with direct access to their data. So for example some of the companies that allow access to government agencies for mass internet surveillance have been cooperating with that. You're seeing this as an issue across the world across sectors."

But less abstractly there are equivalences between some of the surveillance tech from China and the tech on British streets. The US and the UK long ago overtook China to win the unenviable titles of the countries that place their citizens most heavily under surveillance. And this was before the tranche of revelations exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, from the surreptitious global fibre-channel tapping dragnet through to computer programmes developed by intelligence agencies that are designed to psychologically torment the victim.

"In terms of the capabilities, I think some of the issues you're seeing in China are very similar to the ones you're seeing in the UK, especially the deployment of new technologies often with opaque, unknown policy guidance that are being used in public spaces," Omanovic tells Techworld. "For example, the use of facial recognition cameras is one thing that's been covered a lot in China – and that we know are being deployed across the UK at the same time."

Unlike the often poor-quality CCTV fitted out on our streets, police offers are increasingly being equipped with high definition body-worn cameras. Worryingly, according to London's Metropolitan Police Service itself, there are no official rules on when these can and can't be turned off or on – it is, rather, down to the discretion of the officer.

And how do you know if the police have captured your data? If you find out that they do, you might not even be able to see it – you'll have to follow a subject access request process, which will decide if you can see the footage, and even then you'll have to visit a police station to view it there rather than access it remotely.

All of this is potentially wide open for abuse, and this month the Green Party's Baroness Jenny Jones called for an outright ban.

An independent CCTV watchdog in Britain has raised a warning to the National Police Chief's Council that said there was no transparency about these technologies and that if not responsibly regulated, could lead to a massive crisis of confidence in British policing. Here and now the technologies were described as "significantly" increasing capabilities to "intrude upon the privacy of citizens".

A separate watchdog found the UK police facial recognition database has already exceeded 19 million images, and could lead to false intelligence and wrongful allegations.

The biases of facial recognition, predictive analytics and machine learning have received wide coverage, including in Cathy O'Neil's eye-opening book Weapons Of Math Destruction – with much of the software often written by white males who might have conscious or unconscious racial biases that get baked into the code.

And far and away the biggest spending in the $80 billion dollar global spending drive for smart cities is fixed visual surveillance, according to IDC figures, an area of investment receiving considerable attention from local and national government in Britain.

With all of these shared interests, then, is there a chance that the trade mission touched on increased business links between Britain and China in security and surveillance?

Omanovic believes that it's a "very good chance".

"If you look at the UK's exports of security equipment more generally you'll see that China's a very large customer of that, and that's likely to continue, and indeed, given how the UK's economy is looking post-Brexit, it could well be that security exports are going to become something even more important."

Britain's controversial track record on arms and security exports is no secret – the UK is the second-largest arms dealer on the planet, with the military offensives from Saudi Arabia against Yemen and Turkey into Afrin just being the latest in a long line of conflicts the country has profited from.

The government's own statistics record China in second place for total British security exports, accounting for 13 percent of all exports and only behind the USA at 21 percent, with "minimal" variations year on year according to the government.

Is the genie out of the bottle? Well, according to Omanovic there is some hope – for example where data collection has been ruled lawful and should be restrained, such as the European Court of Human Rights judgment against mass indiscriminate data retention. But ultimately it will be up to the public to rally against creeping surveillance, and especially in a post-Brexit landscape where the small protections afforded to the citizens by EU legislation are likely to be dashed.

"What democracies should be aiming towards is not taking advantage of all this new data in secret just to do more surveillance, but doing it in a way that is still respecting international law," Omanovic says. "It varies in different countries. We've seen some examples of good practice, and many examples of bad practice. I think it's up to the public to ensure that basically this isn't done without their knowledge and against their interests.

"I think the oversight bodies are really key to ensure powers are used in line with the rule of law. But there's also a lot within legislation itself in the UK that's completely insufficient, and it's something we've been lobbying for changes to, and challenging in courts.

"What we'd like to see is for people to have control over the data is used itself. So that these systems aren't just scooping up people's data without their knowledge, and it being used to make inferences and judgments on them."

Of course, this shouldn't be a race to the bottom. But the next time there's a whirlwind of attention about digital surveillance in China – it might be worth looking closer to home as well.

Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Mikey

This story, "Theresa May's China trade mission suggests closer surveillance links" was originally published by


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