Home Technology China’s relationship with privacy is a complex one and not always east to understand

China’s relationship with privacy is a complex one and not always east to understand

by Tom Pattinson
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Digital Surveillance

By Tom Pattinson

It’s very obvious and easy to criticise its all-seeing Social Credit System and wide use of facial recognition. There’s little doubt that Chinese citizens are always being watched and monitored, and that there’s a well enforced punishment and reward system in place to enforce it.

So far so Orwellian. But in fact, speak to many Chinese citizens and they will tell you that the cost of paying for their coffee with a smile or being able to fast track the ticket line on Beijing’s subway with facial recognition payments outweighs any civil liberty issues that may be infringed.

On the other end of the spectrum is Germany – where digitally, it still feels like 1998. Official confirmations are sent by fax and the news headlines extoll the dangers of the internet. Germany is a generation behind the UK and two behind China when it comes to mobile shopping and payments. Their own recent history of state spying is an obvious reason for their paranoia but the desire for privacy is holding them back.

In the UK, we enjoy the benefits of AI and are among the most forward thinking of nations when it comes to online shopping and banking. But Brits are still against the roll out of ID cards and the recent discovery of (Chinese designed) facial recognition cameras being used in London was met with heavy criticism. So when the British media look at China’s AI and software developments it is done very much through our own lens and the prism of such judgements.

Even the oldest generations in China have lived with state observation all their lives and so the digitalisation of the surveillance state is a technological rather than ideological change. The difference is now that their dangan files are stored in the cloud rather than brown envelopes, and its CCTV cameras rather than their neighbours who keep tabs on them. For most Chinese people, the state’s intrusion in their private life is regarded as a protection measure – from violent crime, from terrorism, from fraud, from social unrest – and, although it might not be acceptable to say it, it works.

This month’s introduction of a new ruling that demands face scans of customers registering mobile phones is described as another infringement of the liberties of the individual. But this is just another element of China’s requirement that all internet users use real-name identities. Of course, this allows the state to quell subversive voices but it also reduces identity fraud, cyber-crime and ‘spreading rumours’ – China’s name for what is increasingly known as fake news in the west.

Last month, China also made it illegal to anonymously create deep fakes – using AI to create fake video or audio – something the US is considering also. Is this another infringement on free speech or is China ahead of the curve when it comes to cutting out fake news in an era where technology moves faster than policy?

The trust in both British and American democracy is being rapidly dismantled as fake news, brazen lies and intentionally created misinformation is spread on social media by anonymous voices. And it’s not just Russian bots that are tearing apart the fabric of Western society but keyboard warriors who hide behind internet anonymity and are fearless of repercussions.

Lord O’Neill noted how China is watching the evolution of the Western democratic system and doesn’t really like what it sees. We have to be cautious about presuming that China’s 1.3 billion citizens are unhappy with the current political status quo in China, he says, and who are we to tell them what to do as we struggle to find the way through our own political quagmire.

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