China has launched an ambitious “Big Brother” surveillance programme using everything from closed circuit television systems that can recognise faces to identity card computer chips to monitor its population.
A high-tech security company has been awarded a contract for the first phase of a scheme to encode computer chips for the residence permits all Chinese citizens must carry, starting in the southern city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong.
The government will use the chips to control the whereabouts of its hundreds of millions of migrant workers. But they will also store data on the number of their children under the one-child policy, education records and ultimately medical and credit histories.
The company is already setting up television systems throughout the city armed with “intelligent surveillance” software that can recognise faces.
Police hope eventually to combine the two systems to provide complete surveillance.
Shenzhen is being used as a testing ground for part of an all-encompassing security system known as the Golden Shield Project. This also includes computer and mobile phone monitoring through the so-called “Great Firewall” of internet censorship.
Shenzhen is the most developed city in China, having been turned from a village 30 years ago into a pioneer of the country’s “special economic development zones”.
It now has a population of more than 12 million – almost twice as many as Hong Kong, on whose border it lies and which it was set up to imitate.
Per head it is the richest city in China but it suffers from widespread crime and prostitution. Virtually all its population has migrated from elsewhere, a major social issue in China, where residence permits assigned at birth dictate where you can live.
The closed circuit television system and residence card chips will be provided by China Public Security Technology, run by Chinese entrepreneurs but registered in Florida.
More than 20,000 new cameras will be installed, according to the New York Times. They will be integrated with 180,000 already set up.
Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, was the first to test the new system when he passed through immigration at the Shenzhen port on his return from a visit to Hong Kong.
But the extent of Golden Shield has alarmed human rights groups, who say it extends control over all aspects of people’s lives to authorities subject to little or no accountability.
Some of the data the authorities intend to retain on the new identity cards includes the owner’s police record; employment history; landlord’s telephone number; educational record; medical insurance status and ethnicity.
While Britain is known around the world for its surveillance culture due to the soaring numbers of CCTV cameras, human rights activists said the scale and sophistication of the Shenzhen project dwarfed the UK.
“I don’t think they are remotely comparable, and even in Britain it is quite controversial,” said Dinah PoKempner of Human Rights Watch.
The US has announced that it is to expand the use of spy satellites for domestic surveillance, turning its “eyes in sky” inward to combat terrorism and eventually for law enforcement.