Sky Net: Hunan’s video surveillance state

Never mind the smog that obscures the view from the cameras, China is pressing ahead with the construction of the most comprehensive and integrated surveillance of public space in the world. The latest report comes from Hunan province, where “26,022 cameras and 103 surveillance rooms” have been installed. What is particularly interesting, however is that the police intend to integrate “186,000 private cameras owned by residential communities, shopping malls and private enterprises” into the system. Whether this will be successful or not, given the vast differences in analog and digital systems and other compatibility and standards issues, is another matter, but few states have even tried to combine public and private video surveillance systems in this way.

Interestingly the case offered for the effectiveness of the system is as sparse as that to be found in the west, which is particularly strange given that it comes from the police themselves and they could have made it seem a lot more effective: apparently the cameras have “provided clues for more than 2,100 criminal cases” – or less than 1 for every ten cameras, and even more vaguely “has prevented and discouraged crime in some residential communities”. I’m sure that it’s worth the money to the state in terms of keeping a watch on political dissent and any sign of unofficial public politics however.

The punchline is the name of the system: “Sky Net”. Either the Hunan government are not great fans of the Terminator films, or they have a very highly developed and bleak sense of irony…

Through a glass, darkly…

There are many reasons why video surveillance (or closed-circuit television – CCTV) works less well than its advocates claim, and here is another to add to the list from China, the country with probably the most rapidly expanding surveillance infrastructure in the world, and the reason is: air pollution.

Low visibility in Chinese cities due to smog (South China Morning Post)

According to the South China Morning Post, the current record levels of smog in several major cities is leading to visibility of below three metres. It makes video surveillance, even with infrared or other night vision capabilities, useless, and there are no easy solutions.

The Chinese state is so paranoid about internal security, particularly following the recent apparent terrorist attack in Beijing, that it is even considering installing imaging radar systems, more normally found in battlefields and satellite systems.  Apparently, dealing with either the root causes of the pollution or the ‘security’ issues (mainly political discontent across China’s massive and diverse land area) is not on the cards, so China continues to stay on the surveillance technology treadmill…

(thanks to Matt Wei for bringing this to my attention)

East Asia Drone Wars

Northrop-Grumman Global Hawk (USAF)

In one of my only posts last year, around this time, I argued that 2012 would be in the ‘year of the drone’ – and it certainly lived up to that. But we’re still only just beginning. This is already the decade of the drone. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are going to be everywhere in the coming few years (and of course not just in international disputes – I am writing about the spread of domestic surveillance drones for a major report on Surveillance in Canada that we’re producing right now).

Media outlets are reporting that the dispute over maritime territory between China and Japan is ramping up through the use of UAVs.  At the moment both countries rely heavily on conventional naval or fisheries surveillance vessels, which are limited in terms of speed of deployment and numbers. However, surveillance drones could enable a more consistent presence over the disputed islands (and more importantly the sea around them, whose fisheries and below seabed mineral resources are the real underlying issue here).

However, there are big differences in the politics and the political economy of each state’s strategic trajectory here. Japan is relying on its longstanding ‘alliance’ with the USA, and is likely to purchase US-made Northrop-Grumman Global Hawks, further emphasizing the military dependency Japan still has on the USA. China, on the other hand, is speeding up development of its own UAVs, in multiple different models. US industry sources seem more worried by alleged breaches of intellectual property rights in the drones’ design than by strategic issues – but of course, China has almost certainly had access to both hardware and software from downed US drones, which is all part of what some analysts are terming a ‘drone race’ with the USA.

and the Chinese version (Chengdu Aircraft Co.)

But this isn’t just about surveillance. Like the USA’s models, many of China’s UAVs are armed or can be weaponized very easily, and again like the USA, China has also been looking to export markets – most recently, Pakistan has been discussing the purchase of several armed drones from China, following the distinct lack of success in its own UAV development program.

The Global Hawks that Japan is buying are not armed, but this doesn’t mean that Japan is acting less aggressively here or will not in future used armed drones. Despite the post-WW2 US-imposed but popular ‘pacifist’ constitution of the country, the recent return to power of rightist PM Shinzo Abe might will mean both more heated rhetoric over territorial claims and attempts to increase the of the country’s self-defence forces: a review of Japanese military spending – with a view to increasing it – was announced just yesterday.

Drones would seem to be a politically popular choice in this regard as they do not involve putting Japanese lives at risk, or at least not directly; however the longer term outcomes any drone war in East Asia would not likely favour a Japan whose regional economic and political power is influence declining relative to China’s.

Guess who likes the UK’s proposals to control the Internet?

In the wake of the riots, several British Conservative MPs, and indeed PM David Cameron himself, have suggested a harsher regime of state control of both messenger services and social networks. Their suggestions have attracted widespread derision from almost everybody who either knows something about the Internet and communications more broadly, or who places any value on freedom of speech, assembly and communication and regards these things as foundational to any democratic society.

However, the a yet vague proposals have gained support from one quarter: China. The Chinese state-controlled media have suggested that the Conservative Party’s undemocratic suggestions prove that the Chinese state was right all along about controlling the Internet and that now these events are causing liberal democracies to support the Chinese model of highly regulated provision (via Boing Boing).

This is pretty much what I have been suggesting is happening for the last 2 or 3 years – see here, here, here and here. It is just that now, the pretense of democratic communication is being dropped by western governments. And just in case David Cameron doesn’t get it – and he really does not appear to right now, no, it is not a good thing that the Chinese government likes your ideas: it makes you look undemocratic and authoritarian.

The Total Surveillance Society?

Advanced visual surveillance has become prevalent in most developed nations but, being restricted by inconvenient things like democracy and accountability (even if they are not as strong as some would like) and police and local authority funding, such surveillance remains patchy even where it is widespread.

The Chinese state, however, suffers from none of these inconvenient restrictions. Free from democracy, accountability, and with a buoyant economy still largely connected to the Communist Party, it is able to put in place surveillance systems beyond the wildest dreams of the most paranoid western administrators. The target of the new wave of surveillance is internal political unrest, particularly in separatist Tibetan Buddhist and Muslim areas of the massive nation.

Associated Press is reporting official internal announcements about how Urumqi, capital of the Uighur Muslim area of Xinjiang, which saw extensive anti-government protests last year, will be blanketed by surveillance systems. According to the report:

  • 40,000 high-definition surveillance cameras with riot-proof protective shells have already been installed in the region, with 17,000 in Urumqi itself
  • 3,400 buses, 4,400 streets, 270 schools and 100 shopping malls are already covered
  • the aim is for surveillance to be “seamless”, with no blind spots in sensitive areas of the city (and this includes in particular, religious sites)
  • 5,000 new police officers have been recruited

This is part of a wider ‘Safe City’ strategy – in this context, even more of a euphemistic description that the same words would be in the west – that will see 10 million cameras being installed across the country. Ths numbers keep growing all the time: the last time that I reported on this, the estimate was less than 3 million ! IMS Consultants last year estimated that the Chinese video surveillance market was $1.4 billion in 2009, and that this will grow to over $3.5 billion by 2014. China is now the single largest market for video surveillance in the world.