Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A total surveillance society

China surveillance copies USA

From the Statesman
ND Batra

George Orwell’s 1984 failed to materialise, but Keith Bradsher of the New York Times recently wrote how Wall Street has been colluding with the Chinese authorities to turn China into a total surveillance society.

Bradsher wrote: “China Security and Surveillance Technology, a fast-growing company that installs and sometimes operates surveillance systems for Chinese police agencies, jails and banks, among other customers... has just been approved for a listing on the New York Stock Exchange... the latest signs of ever-closer ties among Wall Street, surveillance companies and the Chinese government’s security apparatus.” Another company that trades its shares on Wall Street is China Security and Surveillance.

Just as China is supporting genocide in Darfur through its oil trade with Sudan, the United States is supporting the suppression of human rights by allowing Wall Street to funnel funds to “install surveillance systems providing Chinese police stations with 24-hour video feeds from nearby Internet cafes... Hedge fund money from the United States has paid for the development of not just better video cameras, but face-recognition software and even newer behaviour-recognition software designed to spot the beginnings of a street protest and notify police.”

China says something similar is happening in the United States too. Search companies like Google, Yahoo, AOL and others collect and archive huge amounts of personal data from which can be profiled the behaviour of the user.

Last year, America On Line (AOL), an Internet search company, inadvertently released from its archives millions of search queries done by more than 600,000 users during a three-month period. Thought their names were not released but it would not have been difficult to put together the profile of searcher #167845, for example, and what possessed him or her. The American people are quietly submitting to whatever brings them a feeling of assuredness. Protests against intrusiveness by the government and businesses into our personal lives have become muted.

We are slipping into a low-intensity surveillance society. Every time there is a terrorist attack, we feel that the government might be right. Chinese are no different. Online surveillance devices are being increasingly used by businesses to track users when they surf their websites. Tracking is done unobtrusively and the user can never suspect that he is being watched; nonetheless, the practice is questionable, especially when the website does not declare in its privacy policy.

But who cares in China or Tibet?

Most of us are familiar with cookies, small software programmes the advertisers put on our hard drives to track where we surf so that they can customise the most appropriate advertising message for us to achieve target marketing, reaching the right person with the right message. But a web bug can be programmed to collect whatever data is required without the knowledge of the user. When you look at your online mutual fund statement, or a pornographic site, the web bug too could be monitoring it. So when a Chinese searches for Falun Gong, Catholic Church or the Dalai Lama, do you know what might happen to him? Some American companies claim to inform their visitors about the tracking devices they use and for what purposes. Users can opt-out, but most of them don’t know whether the option is available, nor do many of them pay attention to the privacy statement.
In China, you cannot opt-out.
Surveillance technologies are not limited to the Net. Several companies are using biometrics, face recognition, radio frequency and global positioning system (GPS) technologies, to keep a watch on their properties and track suspects. Many car rental companies in the United States use GPS to keep track of their rental cars. If a car is stolen or is involved in an accident, the company would know the exact location of the car. GPS also enables them to check the speed of a rental car.
Many airports have started using digital fingerprint identification technology to conduct background checks without any protest from employees. Face recognition technology is being extensively used not only in airports but also in ballparks, banks and other business establishments. If a suspect turns up, his face is digitally matched in seconds with the image database.

The US Customs and some airports are using low-dose X-ray machines, such as Body Search, to electronically scan a person for drugs, bombs and contrabands. Body Search electronically strips a person naked and projects the image on the screen for scrutiny without the person being asked to take his/her clothes off - all in the name of security. Hundreds of air travelers, including women, are randomly subjected to electronic Body Search.

An interesting security tracking technology is the radio-frequency identification tag (RFID), which is attached to a suspect’s baggage as he checks in. The tagged baggage is automatically routed to a security area where it is screened with special cameras and sensors for explosives and other hazardous materials. Along with our baggage, we too might have to wear radio-frequency ID tags so that we can be monitored as we move from one airport to another, from country to country via GPS.

Only if we could put an RFID tag on every terrorist!

Nonetheless, the United States is an open society. One can always go to court to seek a remedy against the state as well as corporate America. What can the Chinese do? Go to the Olympics, of course. Or McDonalds.

(ND Batra teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University and is the author of Digital Freedom. He is working on a new book, This is the American Way.)

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