BEIJING — On Xingfu Street, in central Beijing, a dozen people dressed in reflective vests compose a single file line — but they are not merely standing. Hunched to the ground or cautiously walking sideways, they advance as if they were simulating a hostage evacuation or avoiding a sniper. Watched by bewildered passersby, these citizens are participating in a performance by the artist Deng Yufeng, aiming to depict exactly how difficult it is to escape the video surveillance cameras infesting the Chinese capital.
Occasionally zigzagging and walking backwards to hide their faces from the eyes of Big Brother, these volunteers, recruited online, took more than two hours to traverse the 1 kilometer section on Xingfu (or "Happiness") Street. "I found there was something ironic and tragic in the idea of disappearing on Happiness Street," explains the artist from his studio in a Beijing suburb.
It took Deng Yufeng, 34, two months to locate the cameras, discreetly noting their positions and taking measurements in the street. Back at his studio, he studied the different camera angles on the internet then created a route accordingly. "There were 89 cameras when I started creating the route, but on the day of the performance I noticed new ones! Luckily, we were able to add a few adjustments on the spot." Due to a police investigation, Deng gave up his plans of repeating the performance and putting the itinerary online.
Escaping Big Brother is a nearly impossible mission in China. In the name of counterterrorism, the number of surveillance cameras are exploding. The country counted some 350 million in 2018, according to IHS Markit. This number could reach 560 million next year, half of the estimated one billion surveillance cameras in use around the world. Eighteen of the world's 20 most monitored cities are in China, according to the British company Comparitech. In Beijing alone, there are believed to be one million surveillance cameras — still less than the amount in London — if they're estimated in ratio to the number of inhabitants (56 cameras for 1,000 citizens in the Chinese capital against 67 in the British capital).
These cameras are also getting more and more sophisticated. Many are equipped with facial recognition technology, a sector heavily invested in by Beijing in its quest to be the world leader in artificial intelligence. The facial recognition cameras have invaded daily life in China.
Real estate developers are using this technology to track their clients and improve sales.
The communist regime, which has excelled in monitoring its people for 70 years, is a well-known proponent of this technology. But public and private institutions are also regular users: On public transportation; at the entryways of university residences, residential complexes and offices; checking into a hotel or paying for a drink at a vending machine… facial recognition is everywhere. And much of the population is starting to be fed up.
A video shot in a real estate agency in the city of Jinan recently went viral on Chinese social media, reports the online media Sixth Tone. It shows a man wearing a full-face motorcycle helmet to avoid facial recognition cameras. A growing number of real estate developers are using this technology to track their clients and improve their sales. Last year, the presence of facial recognition cameras in schools to track troublesome students created indignation.
"The widespread use of facial recognition in everyday life is accompanied by a growing concern about the use of citizens' data, especially biometrics," says Ma Ce, a lawyer in Hangzhou and a specialist in facial recognition issues. "People are also worried that facial recognition is often obligatory for accessing a service, with no alternative, and this technology isn't foolproof."
Shoppers in the streets in Causeway Bay, HK ©Edmond So/SCMP via ZUMA Wire
According to a study of 6,100 people, published a year ago by a research center in Beijing, around two-thirds of Chinese citizens believe that facial recognition makes lives safer and more convenient, but three-fourths want the possibility of choosing an identification method that's more traditional than facial recognition. Some 80% worry about a leak of their biometric data. This wariness is augmented by numerous scandals that have circulated in the media. Last month, the CCTV state television station revealed that millions of photos of individuals had been sold on the black market for a mere 2 yuans (.25 euros). At the beginning of December, in Chengdu, a 20-year-old woman who tested positive for COVID saw her photo, name, contact information and the places she recently visited dropped into the vindictive pit of social media.
The concern growing within the Chinese population about the confidentiality of their data doesn't date to the emergence of facial recognition. It increased with the explosion of online activity. China has 904 million internet users, frenetically turning to their smartphones for distraction, shopping, paying their bills. In April 2018, Robin Li, founder of the search engine Baidu, incited public wrath by declaring that the Chinese didn't really care about privacy and personal data issues, and were ready to give up their entire private lives for a bit of extra security of comfort. At the same time, in a gallery in Wuhan, Deng Yufeng was trying to raise public awareness about this very topic by showing the personal data of 300,000 Chinese citizens that he illegally bought online. The exhibit was closed by the police after two days.
The growing sensitivity of Chinese citizens to such privacy issues has pushed authorities to react. While China does not yet have a specific law protecting personal data, the country is not a legal no-man's land either. The law on cybersecurity enacted in 2017 insisted — for the first time — on the necessity of obtaining "explicit consent" from the user before collecting their data.
Since then, multiple amendments have been added to this framework law, "creating a legal and regulatory basis inspired by European GDPR," says Christine Milles, a lawyer at the firm DHH in Beijing. "The authorities' desire to create a framework is a response to society's demands, but also serves an economic goal as personal data has become the #1 issue for the digital industry," adds Séverine Arsène, assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
China is preparing to take another step by adopting a law specifically aimed at the protection of personal data. Presented for a first reading in October, the text aims to answer "the massive demands of the population and of the Chinese Communist Party," according to the authorities. It specifically aspires to reinforce the implementation of "informed consent" in the data collection process.
The real-life consequences remain to be seen. Until now, the application of texts has been modest as citizens have few means to uphold their rights. Lao Dongyan, a law professor at the prestigious Tsinghua university, recently denounced the "shortcomings" of the upcoming law, as it still makes it "difficult for individuals to claim their rights." A year ago, in a much-circulated article, she described facial recognition as "a deal with the devil."
Toilet paper dispensers using facial recognition were removed from public bathrooms.
In the meantime, things are evolving under pressure from citizens. Authorities have attacked telephone and SMS canvassing and reinforced their control of internet giants. Last month, a court in the Zhejiang province ruled partially in favor of Guo Bing, an academic in Hangzhou who filed suit against the city's wildlife park for installing facial recognition systems that tracked members. In what is China's first case against the use of facial recognition, the court condemned the park to pay 1,038 yuans (131 euros) and erase the plaintiff's facial data, but didn't order the park to get rid of their facial recognition for other visitors.
Some cities have adopted their own laws. The viral video of the man in the motorcycle helmet incited the cities Nanjing and Xuzhou to ban the use of facial recognition. Hangzhou, which houses the headquarters of leading surveillance company Hikvision, was the first Chinese city to ban neighborhood committees from forcing inhabitants to undergo biometric monitoring to enter their homes. On December 1, Tianjin instituted a ban on companies collecting biometric data without consent. In Dongguan, in Southern China, toilet paper dispensers using facial recognition were removed from public bathrooms following public outrage.
Is Big Brother on the brink of giving up? Not really. While some Chinese cities are trying to restrict video surveillance in the private sector, it isn't stopping public authorities from relying on cutting-edge technologies to monitor the population. In Xinjiang, millions of Uighur Muslims have been arrested after being "flagged" by a software that identifies suspicious behavior. COVID-19 and the proliferation of tracing apps imposed on citizens have also showed that privacy protection laws are limited when it comes to defending collective interests.
"There aren't many ways for citizens to foster a debate about state surveillance," concludes Séverine Arsène. "The regime justifies it's surveillance system with strong propaganda about security issues and national unity, and it's difficult to measure how much this sentiment is shared by the population."
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