Cameras raise privacy concerns

New technologies improve Chinese government's tracking abilities

August 12, 2007|By New York Times News Service

SHENZHEN, China -- At least 20,000 police surveillance cameras are being installed along streets in southern China and will soon be guided by sophisticated computer software from an American-financed company to automatically recognize the faces of police suspects and detect unusual activity.

The program will start this month in a port neighborhood and then spread across Shenzhen, a city of 12.4 million people. Most citizens will also be issued a residency card fitted with a powerful computer chip programmed by the same company.

Data on the chip will include not just the citizen's name and address but also work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status and landlord's phone number. Even personal reproductive history will be included, for enforcement of China's "one child" policy. Plans are being studied to add credit histories, subway travel payments and small purchases charged to the card.

Security experts describe China's plans as the world's largest effort to meld cutting-edge computer technology with police work to track the activities of a population and fight crime, but they say the technology can be used to violate civil rights.

The Chinese government has ordered all large cities across the country to apply technology to police work and to issue high-tech residency cards to 150 million people who have moved to a city but not yet acquired permanent residency there.

Both steps are officially aimed at fighting crime and developing better controls on an increasingly mobile population, including the nearly 10 million peasants who move to big cities each year. But they could also help the Communist Party retain power by maintaining tight controls on an increasingly prosperous population at a time when street protests are becoming more common.

"If they do not get the permanent card, they cannot live here, they cannot get government benefits, and that is a way for the government to control the population in the future," said Michael Lin, the vice president for investor relations at China Public Security Technology, the company providing the technology.

Incorporated in Florida, China Public Security has raised much of the money to develop its technology from two investment funds in Plano, Texas: Pinnacle Fund and Pinnacle China Fund. Three investment banks - based in California, New York and Hong Kong - helped it raise the money.

Shenzhen, a computer manufacturing center next to Hong Kong, is the first Chinese city to introduce the new residency cards. It is also taking the lead in China in the large-scale use of law enforcement surveillance cameras - a tactic that would have drawn international criticism in the years after the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989.

But rising fears of terrorism have lessened public hostility to surveillance cameras in the West.

This has been particularly true in Britain, where the police already install the cameras widely on lamp poles and in subway stations and are developing face recognition software as well.

Shenzhen already has 180,000 indoor and outdoor closed-circuit television cameras owned by businesses and government agencies, and the police here will have the right to link them on request into the same system as the 20,000 police cameras, according to China Public Security.

Some activists contend that the cameras in China and Britain are a violation of the right of privacy in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Large-scale surveillance in China is more threatening than such surveillance in Britain, they said when told of Shenzhen's plans.

"I don't think they are remotely comparable, and even in Britain it's quite controversial," said Dinah PoKempner, the general counsel of Human Rights Watch in New York. China has fewer limits on police power, fewer restrictions on how government agencies use information and fewer legal protections for those suspected of crime, she pointed out.

While most countries issue identity cards, and many countries gather a lot of information about citizens, China also appears poised to go much further in putting personal information on identity cards, PoKempner added.

Every police officer in Shenzhen carries global positioning satellite equipment on his or her belt, allowing senior police officers to direct police movements on large, high-resolution maps of the city.

"We have a very good relationship with U.S. companies like IBM, Cisco, HP, Dell - these are all very good partners with us," said Robin Huang, the chief operating officer of China Public Security.

The role of American companies in helping Chinese security forces has periodically been controversial in the United States. Executives from Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco Systems testified in February 2006 at a congressional hearing called to review whether they had deliberately designed their systems to help the Chinese state muzzle dissidents on the Internet; the companies denied having done so.

Western security experts have suspected for several years that Chinese security agencies could track individuals based on the location of their cell phones, and the Shenzhen police tracking system confirms this.

When a police officer cannot receive a global positioning signal from satellites overhead, the system automatically switches to tracking the location of the officer's cell phone. Huang used a real-time connection to local police dispatchers' computers to show a detailed computer map of a Shenzhen district and the precise location of each of the 92 patrolling officers, represented by caricatures of officers in blue uniforms and the routes they had traveled in the last hour.

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