In China, How People Are Pushing Back On Surveillance State

Facial recognition cameras have imposed themselves in every nook and cranny of Chinese life — to the point where a concern is growing within the population and certain cities are reacting.

Closed-Circuit Televisions (CCTV) at Tiananmen Square
Closed-Circuit Televisions (CCTV) at Tiananmen Square
Frédéric Schaeffer

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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Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.

Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."


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