Beijing - Step by step, China has been rolling out surveillance technology that is remarkably intrusive, comprehensive and ubiquitous. Eager to exploit gains in technology, Beijing seems little concerned about human rights or privacy violations.
On December 10, the BBC reported that China seeks to build the world's largest camera surveillance network, with 170 million closed-circuit cameras installed and an estimated 400 million new ones coming in the next three years. In the city of Guiyang in southwest China, correspondent John Sudworth agreed to add a photograph of his face to the database of the local public security bureau and have it flagged as a "suspect" in an experiment to see how long he could walk freely on the streets before the police could find him. He got out of his car close to the city centre and walked toward a bus station. The exercise took just seven minutes.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch reported on December 13 that Chinese authorities have been collecting DNA samples, blood types, fingerprints and iris scans, in some cases possibly without informing people, from a large swath of the population in the restive Xinjiang province in far northwestern China.
Ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang have long complained about repression and discrimination at the hands of the Chinese government; resentment has sometimes turned violent.
According to Human Rights Watch, in a procedure rolled out this year, the authorities there are collecting the DNA and blood-type information under the cover of a "free annual physical exams programme called Physicals for All."
It wasn't clear that people were giving their consent or even knew that the DNA data was being taken, the group said. Although the government had sold the idea of amassing biodata in terms of poverty alleviation, better delivery of health services and "social stability," Human Rights Watch noted that such widespread collection of intimate data as DNA can be a serious human rights and privacy violation.
For several years now, China has been building out a system known as the social credit score, which collects information on the behaviour of individuals from data such as financial transactions, shopping habits, social media and interactions with friends, as well as other indicators such as traffic tickets and unpaid bills, and computes a single loyalty or "trust" score for each individual.
The authorities plan to make the system mandatory for the whole country by 2020. It is not hard to imagine the social credit system quickly turning into a Big Brother of the digital age, used to punish those who express dissent and to reward obedience to the Communist Party. The magazine Wired described this as a shift from the old regimen of trying to enforce obedience with truncheons and top-down fear; instead, "the government is attempting to make obedience feel like gaming. It is a method of social control dressed up in some points-reward system."
China promotes itself as a rising power, but a state that lords over its people with hidden cameras, secret databases and intrusive algorithms sounds more like prison.