China Today, Tomorrow, The World?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Jaron Lanier’s book: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which is a warning against the rise of surveillance technology and algorithms capable of social manipulation.

In the West, that technology is in the hands of private companies (e.g. Facebook, Google), but in China, it is firmly in the grasp of the State. I hadn’t appreciated just how far this had progressed until I read a recent article in the London Review of Books: Document Number Nine, by John Lanchester. He reviews two books written about how the Chinese Communist Party (the CCP) has adopted the internet, AI and surveillance technologies to monitor and control its citizens.

It is the stuff of nightmares.

I’ve just bought one of the books: Kai Strittmatter’s We Have Been Harmonised. The blurb on the back cover says:

This is a journey into a land where Big Brother has acquired a whole new set of toys with which to control and cajole – ‘harmonise’- the masses. It is also a warning against Western complacency. Beijing is already finding eager buyers for its “Operating System for Dictators’- in Africa and Asia, Russia and the Middle East. And with China’s corporate giants – all ultimately under Party control – being offered a place at the heart of Europe’s vital infrastructure, it is time we paid attention.

As Lanchester writes:

Imagine a place in which there’s a police post every hundred metres, and tens of thousands of cameras linked to a state-run facial recognition system; where people are forced to have police-owned GPS systems in their cars, and you can buy petrol only after having your face scanned; where all mobile phones have a state app on them to monitor their activity and prevent access to ‘damaging information’; where religious activity is monitored; where the state knows whether you have family and friends abroad, and where the government offers free health clinics as a way of getting your fingerprint and iris scan and samples of your DNA. Strittmatter points out that you don’t need to imagine this place, because it exists: that’s life in Xinjiang for the minority population of Muslim Uighurs.

Meanwhile, I continue to be astounded at our willingness to trust Facebook. Lanchester again:

Do we want facial recognition technology to be in the hands of the least scrupulous technology giant? If we don’t, we’re too late – it already is. Facebook has changed its terms of service over ‘tagging’ people’s photos a couple of times, from opt-out to opt-in, but the gist is that it is too late: Facebook already owns your ‘faceprint’, the algorithmic representation of your face. How much do we think we can trust them with it?

Not one inch, as far as I’m concerned.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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