By Oiwan Lam
Communities in rural China are facing a new generation of surveillance technology that interconnects citizens’ everyday activities and interests with their government’s ever-growing appetite for monitoring its population.
The system, known as “Sharp Eyes”, relies on technological measures — and on the idea that people should be willing to monitor and report on their neighbors, friends and even family members.
A rural version of China’s infamous Skynet surveillance project, Sharp Eyes first launched in 2011 in an effort to extend the reach of China’s surveillance system to mainland rural communities. Unlike Skynet, Sharp Eyes encourages villagers to take part in person-to-person surveillance in order to reduce public security costs.
Most recently, the Sharp Eyes Project was written into the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee’s first documents of February 2018, following their decision to remove term limits for position of the president and leader of the party.
A 28 February report from Legal Daily said that by 2020 China will have a comprehensive nationwide surveillance network, wherein law enforcement and security officials will have easy and quick access to data collected by any individual surveillance camera in the network.
From Skynet to Sharp Eyes
Skynet, the predecessor to Sharp Eyes, uses artificial intelligence and facial recognition technologies to track the identities of people whose faces are caught on public security cameras.
Launched in 2005, the system now works in real time, and can identify a person in just a few seconds. By September 2017, the Skynet had set up over 20 million surveillance cameras nationwide. At present, apart from tracking criminals, the Skynet system is widely used to identify and fine jaywalkers in major cities.
Chinese authorities now want to extend the system to rural regions, in the form of Sharp Eyes.
In contrast to Skynet, Sharp Eyes will appropriate private household TV sets and smart phones in order to decentralize the surveillance system. Some are worried that the system will be further appropriated for the monitoring of private spaces — that once the mobiles and TVs are connected to the network, their built-in cameras and microphones could be turned on by the network operator in order to surveil citizens in their own homes.
These fears were further validated by a censored public relations post from a subcontractor of the Sharp Eyes project, Guangdong Aebell Technology Corporation.
In the post, the company explained that their Sharp Eyes operating system is set to build a decentralized, real-time mutual surveillance system:
Aebell is evolving in the interest of serving the national strategic Sharp Eyes project. Based on our experiments with sound and video recording technologies, and our subsequent innovations, we have developed an operating system for the Sharp Eyes project that can fulfill in real-time our needs for tracking criminal activities, instant reporting on crime, instant response and reaction.
The system appropriates household TV sets and smart phones to enhance the extension of surveillance system to households and individuals. The system contributes to the construction of a comprehensive crime prevention and public security system, along with an integrated informational public security system that turns mutual, real-time and ubiquitous surveillance into reality.
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Big brother and decentralized surveillance systems
How exactly does the decentralized surveillance system work? Legal Daily interviewed a public security volunteer who resides in Linyi City, Shandong province. Linyi City made international headlines after the unlawful house arrest and escape of human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who is seeing-impaired.
The volunteer said she could keep an eye on the village while taking care of her grandchildren at home by making use of the smart community operation system installed in her household TV. The platform has granted her access to six surveillance cameras in the village, allowing her to undertake a “virtual patrol” of the village just by pressing a few buttons.
She also said that she had assisted in the arrest of a burglar in 2017 through the police alarm button on her TV remote control.
According to the Legal Daily’s report, there are more than 360,000 surveillance cameras installed in Linyi City, out of 2.93 million surveillance cameras in all Shandong province. The province has set up 2,491 surveillance centers to operate the network.
Online comments concerning the project are heavy censored. But some of the more satirical (and less obvious) comments on the issue are still circulating on Chinese social media:
I suggest that every single individual should contribute to the national “Sharp Eyes project” by checking your boyfriend’s mobile phone as frequently as possible, by snooping your neighbors while they are changing their clothes, by keeping your toilet door open while you are doing your business. You have to take “Sharp Eyes” into your heart, act it out and make it materialize. In all the minute details, we have to manifest the progressiveness of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. This is the glory and duty of every single citizen.
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A report from the business sector showed that by December 2017, the government had spent RMB 3.1 billion yuan (approximately half a billion US dollars) on the Sharp Eyes project. As the project has now been incorporated into the CCP central committee’s planning document, Chinese society will enter a new era of so-called “mutual surveillance”.
This article first appeared on Global Voices on April 3.