Chinese citizens are beginning to realise to what extent state camera surveillance, installed to collect big data about the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, has invaded into their private lives even after post-pandemic normalcy.
The pandemic had opened the door to the Chinese authorities to make a new normal of intensive surveillance of the population by introducing new and extraordinarily intrusive methods under the guise of collecting pandemic data.
CCTV cameras installed at the entrance of their flats mark all moments of the citizens. In thousands of cases, citizens have found cameras installed inside their homes too. Drones are everywhere, talking down to people whose masks have slipped. And neither the cameras nor the drones are going away.
CNN reported as early as in April 2020 of a residentially locality in Beijing where an individual, upon returning home from abroad, found a surveillance camera being mounted on the wall outside his apartment door, the lens was pointing right at him. It is an “incredible erosion of privacy”, he had told CNN, adding: “It just seems to be a massive data grab. And I don’t know how much of it is actually legal.”
There was never any official announcement by the authorities about installing cameras outside people’s homes. Officially, there is no national law either to regulate the use of surveillance cameras. Yet, they are already a part of public life. They are afraid of a government crackdown if they oppose the cameras or report their “illegal” presence.
In the period since 2017, over 20 million cameras have been installed across China. This is a statistic given by the state broadcaster, CCTV. However, CNN quoted a report from IHS Markit Technology, now a part of Informa Tech, as saying that China has 349 million surveillance cameras installed as of 2018, nearly five times the number of cameras in the United States.
China also has eight of the world’s 10 most surveilled cities based on the number of cameras per 1,000 people, according to UK-based technology research firm Comparitech.
“But now the pandemic has brought surveillance cameras closer to people’s private lives: from public spaces in the city right to the front doors of their homes — and in some rare cases, surveillance cameras inside their apartments.”
The use of surveillance cameras for Covid data began in China through a digital health code system. It was used to control people’s movements and decide who should go into quarantine, enforce home quarantine, and identify violators.
China is already using a digital health code system to control people’s movements and decide who should go into quarantine. To enforce home quarantine, local authorities have again resorted to technology — and have been open about the use of surveillance cameras.
Gradually, cameras were installed cameras outside the doors of people under self-quarantine to monitor them 24 hours a day. In some towns, the quarantine cameras were powered with artificial intelligence to detect human shapes.
In no time, the cameras entered people’s homes. An early example was from Changzhou in eastern Jiangsu province where a public servant said a community worker and a police officer came to his flat and fixed a camera pointing at his front door from a cabinet wall inside his home. He did not like the breach of his privacy, but nobody was listening.
In some cities, the cameras used to monitor quarantined residents were connected to the smartphones of police officers and community workers.
Where cameras were not available, the authorities fixed magnetic alarms outside the apartment doors. They would notify community workers nearby if the dwellers stepped outside, indicating that a quarantine violation had taken place.
With the cameras and consequent privacy breach came the growing influence of community workers in the citizens’ lives. IN China, urban residential communities are managed by neighbourhood committees to handle local issues. However, in a legacy dating back to the Mao era, the committee members also act as the government’s eyes and ears “helping to maintain stability by watching over millions of residents nationwide and reporting suspicious activities”.
CNN said: “Since the outbreak, community workers have been given great leeway and tasked with epidemic control in residential compounds, enforcing home quarantine, as well as helping quarantined residents with basic needs, such as delivering food and groceries to their doors and taking out their trash.”
Agitated residents and rights activists have been protesting the camera intrusions: “Technology can and should play an important role during this effort to save lives, such as to spread public health messages and increase access to health care. However, an increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, in ways that could violate rights and degrade trust in public authorities — undermining the effectiveness of any public health response.”
In recent months, citizens are complaining that the surveillance methods are being re-engineered for non-health, non-Covid purposes. In Hangzhou, for instance, the people protested when the officials wanted to use the surveillance app for post-pandemic activities like mapping people’s lifestyles.
There have been several instances of the health code data having been hacked, with the hackers targeting celebrities by publishing the photos and selfies they used for their biometric identity verification.
In some cities, officials suggested turning the equipment into a security tool from a health service by searching for people who could not be found through traditional methods.
There was a recommendation that the surveillance system be used to pump data for the notorious social credit system that rates people’s behaviours and sought to distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy citizens.
The surveillance programme in China has become so massive that it is able to shape and even force behaviours en masse. That is the most concerning aspect of the new normal in China.