‘They can track people over time’: Inside China’s extensive surveillance network

Through China’s surveillance technology, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid being identified — even in a population of over a billion people.

“They can store faces, they can check faces against the national ID database. They can capture, you know, 30 to 100 faces at a single time,” said Cate Cadell, who covers China as a national security reporter with the Washington Post.

Cadell said by reading police procurement documents, what China is doing with those systems is “terrifying.”

“They can track people over time, their movements through a city,” he said.

Last week, protestors took to the streets to demonstrate against the country’s zero-covid policy and called for an end to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s Communist Party.

And although the Chinese government has obliterated even the strictest of its COVID-19 restrictions, demonstrators may not be able to rejoice just yet.

This is in part due to China’s extensive facial recognition surveillance network — including a stringent facial recognition system initiated and taken an interest in by Xi.

That network is paramount to surveillance civilians. China’s national ID system, massively expanded under Xi’s reign, is an extensive network that tracks civilians down regardless of time or place.

A protester reacts as he is arrested by policemen during a protest on a street in Shanghai. (The Associated Press)

As police launch an investigation into the protests, people who’ve violated the law will soon be forced to face the consequences.

“We’ve heard a lot of people have been called in to give accounts of where they were at this time, have been forced to give up their phones,” Cadell said.

“And I suppose, you know, as we go ahead, we’ll start to see what sort of punishments are being handed out.”

‘People have been captured by these systems’

Dissent is rare in China, but not impossible, Cadell pointed out.

That’s because it doesn’t matter when or where a demonstration takes place, the government is keeping tabs. China’s police follow vague laws around the punishment of its civilians, so they have a “really big mandate to track people down and arrest them,” she said.

Cadell said that China’s facial recognition system is the most extensive of its kind. It’s made possible by the government’s national ID system, where residents are issued photo ID cards.

While China already maintains a pre-existing database of faces, a new generation of ID cards were introduced during Xi’s reign – a technology that was more conducive to facial recognition.

The Chinese government logs data by having people sit for photos, scanning their heads at every angle – up and down and side to side, Cadell said.

And on top of that, bigger cities have more advanced uses of AI that can track the color of a person’s clothes and the way they walk. That AI is able to identify the objective of a crowd of people, whether they’re a tourist group or civilians out for a riot.

“We can see in some court documents that people have been captured by these systems,” she said.

She said that although the government and police haven’t outwardly mentioned that the network is being used, there has been a huge investment by the government in it, as well as a “massive expansion of this type of technology.”

“Which sort of leads you to believe that there has to be some truth to how it’s being used,” she said.

Some human rights experts went so far as to describe China’s use of AI as “mass atrocity crimes,” with Human Rights Watch warning that this technology could be used to target people during civil unrest, deploying what some would call “killer robots” onto certain populations in war zones.

Online safety

China’s national ID system doesn’t stop when protestors take to social media.

China’s censorship bureaus also employ an incredible amount of AI in these processes, according to Cadell. People holding up symbolic white sheets of paper have become famous in demonstrations against the government. But online, it’s short-lived.

A protester shouts slogans against China’s strict zero COVID measures on November 28, 2022 in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

“It would be very quick and very easy for them to deploy AI to recognize those images and really quickly scrub them or not allow them to be posted in the first place,” Cadell said.

But the real catch? National IDs are required to sign into any social media service in the country, including Chinese versions of Western social media platforms and various websites.

According to Cadell, Xi introduced a law that requires strict surveillance on those platforms. In addition, those accounts are linked to names and phone numbers.

She added that under Xi’s law, internet companies maintain a strict database of individuals on their platforms. They’re linked to names through phone numbers, enabling people to log into various websites.

As a result, apps that offer secret, end-to-end encrypted messaging like Telegram or Whatsapp are also not available for download in China.

“The idea that you can be anonymous on the Chinese internet,” she said, “that just doesn’t happen.”


Audio produced by Howard Goldenthal