Washington: Chinese President Xi Jinping is using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to tighten his government’s totalitarian control and is exporting the technology to other countries across the world, according to a report.
Xi wants to build an all-seeing digital system of social control, patrolled by precog algorithms that could identify potential dissenters in real-time. While China has already installed hundreds of millions of cameras in place, the Chinese government hopes to soon achieve the full video coverage of key public areas, writes Ross Andersen, a deputy editor of The Atlantic.
Every person who enters a public space in the future can be instantly identified by AI, matching them with their data, including their every text communication, and their body’s one-of-a-kind protein-construction schema.
“In time, algorithms will be able to string together data points from a broad range of sources — travel records, friends and associates, reading habits, purchases — to predict political resistance before it happens,” Andersen added.
With Xi keen to see his country achieve AI supremacy by 2030, the Chinese government could soon gain an unprecedented political stranglehold on over a billion people.
China has been adopting surveillance measures in the past. Ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Chinese security services achieved a new level of control over the country’s internet. During the COVID-19 outbreak, the Xi government was dependant on private firms in possession of sensitive personal data. Any emergency data-sharing arrangements made behind close doors during the crisis could become permanent, says Andersen.
Chinese citizens were subjected to a form of risk scoring during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, where every people were assigned a colour code — green, yellow and red — as per an algorithm, which also determined their ability to take transit or visit building in megacities. However, in a sophisticated digital system of digital control, these codes could be used to score a person’s perceived political pliancy.
A crude version of this system is already present in China’s Xinjiang in the northwestern part of the country. Once Xi makes this system perfect, no technological limitations will pin him down from extending AI surveillance across China.
“With AI, Xi can build history’s most oppressive authoritarian apparatus, without the manpower Mao needed to keep information about dissent flowing to a single, centralized node. In China’s most prominent AI start-ups — SenseTime, CloudWalk, Megvii, Hikvision, iFlytek, Meiya Pico — Xi has found willing commercial partners. And in Xinjiang’s Muslim minority, he has found his test population,” Andersen wrote in the article.
Uyghurs, who install VPN would likely lead to an investigation so they cannot download WhatsApp or any other prohibited encrypted-chat software. Purchasing prayer rugs online, storing digital copies of Islamic books and downloading sermons are all considered risky activities. Also, authorities may take note if an Uyghur person wants to use WeChat’s payment system to donate to a mosque.
Some Uyghurs buried their mobile phones containing religious materials or even froze their data cards into dumplings for safekeeping amid the cultural crackdown by the Xi government. Police have forced them to install nanny applications on their new phones, according to the anthropologist Darren Byler.
These apps use algorithms to hunt for “ideological viruses” day and night. They can also scan chat histories for Quran verses, Arabic script in memes and other image files, Byler said.
These nanny apps work with the police, who inspect phones at checkpoints and scrolling through call logs and texts. Staying off from social media because digital inactivity itself can raise suspicions. Police are required to note when Uyghurs deviate from their normal behaviour patterns. Their database wants to know if the ethnic community members can leave their home through back door instead of front, and it they spend less time interacting with their neighbours.
China uses “predatory lending to sell telecommunications equipment at a significant discount to developing countries, which then puts China in a position to control those networks and their data,” Michael Kratsios, America’s CTO, told The Atlantic.
When countries want to refinance the loan terms, China can make the network access part of the deal just like the way its military gets base rights at foreign ports financed by it.
“If you give (China) unfettered access to data networks around the world, that could be a serious problem,” Kratsios said.
CloudWalk Technology, a Guangzhou-based start-up, signed a deal with the Zimbabwean government in 2018 for setting up a surveillance network. According to the terms, Zimbabwe is required to send images of its inhabitants, a rich data set, back to CloudWalk’s Chinese offices, allowing the firm to fine-tune its software ability to recognise dark-skinned faces, which have proved tricky for its algorithms previously.
Chinese telecom titan ZTE sold Ethiopia a wireless network with built-in backdoor access for the government. However, dissents were rounded up as part of the crackdown for brutal interrogations, during which they were played audio from recent phone calls they had made. Other countries like Kenya, Uganda and Mauritius are installing Chinese-made surveillance networks in their cities.
Moreover, the Zambian government has agreed to purchase over USD 1 billion in telecom equipment from China, including internet-monitoring technology.
In South Asia, Beijing has supplied surveillance equipment to Sri Lanka and Chinese company Dahua is installing AI-assisted surveillance cameras in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Farther west, in Serbia, Chinese telecom giant Huawei is helping to set up a “safe-city system“, having facial-recognition cameras and joint patrols carried out by Serbian and Chinese Police aimed at helping Chinese tourists to feel safe and secure.
In Latin America, which the Chinese government describes the region as a “core economic interest“, Beijing financed Ecuador’s USD 240 million purchase of a surveillance camera system. Bolivia has bought surveillance equipment with loan assistance from China. Recently, Venezuela introduced a new national identity card system that logs citizens’ political affiliations in a database built by ZTE.