China's ultimate surveillance machine

Mar 09, 2016, 1:53 PM EST
(Source: picturenarrative/flickr)
(Source: picturenarrative/flickr)

China appears to be employing big data for fighting crime — something other governments, including the U.S., have been looking at for years. But China isn’t doing it like everyone else. Reports over the last couple of weeks have noted that the Chinese government is using big data to create a "unified information environment” that will allow law enforcement to profile individuals in order to track behavior and anticipate crime. 

This "predictive policing" or "pre-crime” has been used previously by U.S. law enforcement. In general, using big data to surveil and monitor is not a new technology for governments, particularly ones that are already keen on keeping tabs on citizens. But Beijing has also used this tech to create a "Situation-Aware Public Security Evaluation (SAPE) platform" that predicts "security events" based on surveillance data, according to Ars Technica.

The technology was developed in the U.S., and will use data mined from citizens’ activity to observe where people go, what they do, who they spend time with, and to look for deviations from these norms. The system amounts to tracking citizens and gathering surveillance data on them in order to preempt criminal or terrorist activity -- and there are no checks on it from privacy laws. 

Bloomberg quoted Wu Manqing, the chief engineer for China Electronics Technology Group, the state-run defense contractor working on this software: “It’s very crucial to examine the cause after an act of terror. But what is more important is to predict the upcoming activities…We don’t call it a big data platform, but a united information environment.”

Of course, many see this surveillance technology not as a mechanism for anticipating terrorist acts, but as one for closely monitoring citizens — something China is fond of — without their consent. China’s government is infamous for having no bones about tracking users, persecuting those who dissent with the Communist Party online, jailing bloggers, and generally squashing opposition that crops up on the internet.

Is big data to blame for this development? It certainly wouldn’t be possible without it, but blaming it on big data would be unwise. China is employing the technology to accomplish many other smart development policies, aiding in the country’s rapid urban build-out, and manage urbanization and economic issues. What is truly needed here is something data experts have been iterating for years: proper governance. As “pre-crime” units become reality, that lack will become particularly tangible. With no framework for governance, China could wield this surveillance weapon for both good and bad.