Mass surveillance systems sound dystopian at the best of times. But call them Skynet – like the artificial intelligence network that goes rogue in the Terminator films – and they sound especially sinister.
None of that has stopped the authorities in China from trying to present a surveillance system of their own as a positive development, however.
The latest insight into Skynet’s capabilities comes courtesy of Amazing China – a six-part documentary aired by CCTV last month.
Episode five, which took its title from the Confucian ideal of Xiaokang or ‘ideal society’, boasted that China had “built the world’s largest surveillance system”.
“In an uncertain world, security is a luxury,” it said, showing pictures of violence and unrest in other countries.
The true power of Skynet is unknown, although there is no doubt that it gets stronger as its component technologies, such as facial recognition software, improve.
In Amazing China the surveillance technology is deployed to arrest a man accused of defrauding an old woman in Suzhou. His bank details and phone number are entered into a computer and an alert is put out for him. Cameras soon spot him near a residential complex and the apartment is raided.
“No matter where you go, we will find you,” says the policeman, in suitably dramatic prose.
Skynet began in 2004 in Zhejiang province and has since been installed in cities and county-level towns across China. According to the documentary, 20 million cameras now feed into a central system which also deploys satellite tracking, Big Data and artificial intelligence techniques, such as facial and vehicle recognition.
Many cities already boast they have 100% Skynet coverage – which means cameras on all the major roads and public sites – although some systems are self-contained, which is to say they are not connected to the nationwide scheme.
The capital city has 46,000 government-installed security cameras and 4,300 Beijing police officers monitoring their feeds, according to official figures. But Skynet surveillance is only half the story. In addition to the Skynet network there are millions of privately-installed cameras covering schools, hospitals, businesses and farms.
Amazingly a lot of this footage is accessible to the public through livestreaming sites such as Shuidi, owned by Qihoo360 Technology, or Ezviz, operated by Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology (see WiC375 for more on this surveillance camera company).
Indeed so much material is available that local artist Xu Bing was able to splice together a full-length drama from content generated on Shuidi. Dragonfly Eyes, released in August, tells the story of Ke Fan, a technician who falls in love with a woman he sees on closed-circuit television system.
Xu’s team sifted through 10,000 hours of footage and had to track down the people captured by the cameras to ask permission to use their images. He says he was surprised how many were willing. “The entire world has become a gigantic film studio,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
Some of the video coverage on Shuidi has an advertising purpose. Other coverage, such as cameras at schools, gives parents a way of keeping an eye on their children.
Many streams have followings who watch and comment as they might on a reality TV show. It’s hardly highbrow viewing: two of the most popular channels are from a massage parlour in Sichhuan and an underwear shop in Gansu. Neither location appears to have asked its customers for permission to broadcast their images.
“The woman on the second bed is so cute,” enthused one voyeur on the massage parlour feed. “It would be better if they weren’t so covered up,” another suggested.
Yet people are also concerned about the privacy implications of the surveillance content and Shuidi was forced to put passwords on their high-school feeds earlier this year after parents raised concerns.
Students at a university in Wuhan also complained last year after cameras were installed in the classrooms and dormitories to encourage “good study habits”.
“It feels like we are naked in public,” one weibo user warned after the Amazing China documentary on Skynet went out.
Others asked how useful all the surveillance really was. “If it’s so powerful, how come children are still abducted?” queried one.
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