China's All-Seeing Eye
With the help of U.S. defense
contractors, China is building the prototype for a high-tech police
by Naomi Klein
www.rollingstone.com/, May 29,
Thirty years ago, the city of Shenzhen
didn't exist. Back in those days, it was a string of small fishing
villages and collectively run rice paddies, a place of rutted
dirt roads and traditional temples. That was before the Communist
Party chose it - thanks to its location close to Hong Kong's port
- to be China's first "special economic zone," one of
only four areas where capitalism would be permitted on a trial
basis. The theory behind the experiment was that the "real"
China would keep its socialist soul intact while profiting from
the private-sector jobs and industrial development created in
Shenzhen. The result was a city of pure commerce, undiluted by
history or rooted culture - the crack cocaine of capitalism. It
was a force so addictive to investors that the Shenzhen experiment
quickly expanded, swallowing not just the surrounding Pearl River
Delta, which now houses roughly 100,000 factories, but much of
the rest of the country as well. Today, Shenzhen is a city of
12.4 million people, and there is a good chance that at least
half of everything you own was made here: iPods, laptops, sneakers,
flatscreen TVs, cellphones, jeans, maybe your desk chair, possibly
your car and almost certainly your printer. Hundreds of luxury
condominiums tower over the city; many are more than 40 stories
high, topped with three-story penthouses. Newer neighborhoods
like Keji Yuan are packed with ostentatiously modern corporate
campuses and decadent shopping malls. Rem Koolhaas, Prada's favorite
architect, is building a stock exchange in Shenzhen that looks
like it floats - a design intended, he says, to "suggest
and illustrate the process of the market." A still-under-construction
superlight subway will soon connect it all at high speed; every
car has multiple TV screens broadcasting over a Wi-Fi network.
At night, the entire city lights up like a pimped-out Hummer,
with each five-star hotel and office tower competing over who
can put on the best light show.
Many of the big American players have
set up shop in Shenzhen, but they look singularly unimpressive
next to their Chinese competitors. The research complex for China's
telecom giant Huawei, for instance, is so large that it has its
own highway exit, while its workers ride home on their own bus
line. Pressed up against Shenzhen's disco shopping centers, Wal-Mart
superstores - of which there are nine in the city - look like
dreary corner stores. (China almost seems to be mocking us: "You
call that a superstore?") McDonald's and KFC appear every
few blocks, but they seem almost retro next to the Real Kung Fu
fast-food chain, whose mascot is a stylized Bruce Lee.
American commentators like CNN's Jack
Cafferty dismiss the Chinese as "the same bunch of goons
and thugs they've been for the last 50 years." But nobody
told the people of Shenzhen, who are busily putting on a 24-hour-a-day
show called "America" - a pirated version of the original,
only with flashier design, higher profits and less complaining.
This has not happened by accident. China today, epitomized by
Shenzhen's transition from mud to megacity in 30 years, represents
a new way to organize society. Sometimes called "market Stalinism,"
it is a potent hybrid of the most powerful political tools of
authoritarian communism - central planning, merciless repression,
constant surveillance - harnessed to advance the goals of global
Now, as China prepares to showcase its
economic advances during the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, Shenzhen
is once again serving as a laboratory, a testing ground for the
next phase of this vast social experiment. Over the past two years,
some 200,000 surveillance cameras have been installed throughout
the city. Many are in public spaces, disguised as lampposts. The
closed-circuit TV cameras will soon be connected to a single,
nationwide network, an all-seeing system that will be capable
of tracking and identifying anyone who comes within its range
- a project driven in part by U.S. technology and investment.
Over the next three years, Chinese security executives predict
they will install as many as 2 million CCTVs in Shenzhen, which
would make it the most watched city in the world. (Security-crazy
London boasts only half a million surveillance cameras.)
The security cameras are just one part
of a much broader high-tech surveillance and censorship program
known in China as "Golden Shield." The end goal is to
use the latest people-tracking technology - thoughtfully supplied
by American giants like IBM, Honeywell and General Electric -
to create an airtight consumer cocoon: a place where Visa cards,
Adidas sneakers, China Mobile cellphones, McDonald's Happy Meals,
Tsingtao beer and UPS delivery (to name just a few of the official
sponsors of the Beijing Olympics) can be enjoyed under the unblinking
eye of the state, without the threat of democracy breaking out.
With political unrest on the rise across China, the government
hopes to use the surveillance shield to identify and counteract
dissent before it explodes into a mass movement like the one that
grabbed the world's attention at Tiananmen Square.
Remember how we've always been told that
free markets and free people go hand in hand? That was a lie.
It turns out that the most efficient delivery system for capitalism
is actually a communist-style police state, fortressed with American
"homeland security" technologies, pumped up with "war
on terror" rhetoric. And the global corporations currently
earning superprofits from this social experiment are unlikely
to be content if the lucrative new market remains confined to
cities such as Shenzhen. Like everything else assembled in China
with American parts, Police State 2.0 is ready for export to a
neighborhood near you.
Zhang Yi points to an empty bracket on
the dashboard of his black Honda. "It used to hold my GPS,
but I leave it at home now," he says. "It's the crime
- they are too easy to steal." He quickly adds, "Since
the surveillance cameras came in, we have seen a very dramatic
decrease in crime in Shenzhen."
After driving for an hour past hundreds
of factory gates and industrial parks, we pull up to a salmon-color
building that Zhang partly owns. This is the headquarters of FSAN:
CCTV System. Zhang, a prototypical Shenzhen yuppie in a royal-blue
button-down shirt and black-rimmed glasses, apologizes for the
mess. Inside, every inch of space is lined with cardboard boxes
filled with electronics parts and finished products.
Zhang opened the factory two and a half
years ago, and his investment has already paid off tenfold. That
kind of growth isn't unusual in the field he has chosen: Zhang's
factory makes digital surveillance cameras, turning out 400,000
a year. Half of the cameras are shipped overseas, destined to
peer from building ledges in London, Manhattan and Dubai as part
of the global boom in "homeland security." The other
half stays in China, many right here in Shenzhen and in neighboring
Guangzhou, another megacity of 12 million people. China's market
for surveillance cameras enjoyed revenues of $4.1 billion last
year, a jump of 24 percent from 2006.
Zhang escorts me to the assembly line,
where rows of young workers, most of them women, are bent over
semiconductors, circuit boards, tiny cables and bulbs. At the
end of each line is "quality control," which consists
of plugging the camera into a monitor and making sure that it
records. We enter a showroom where Zhang and his colleagues meet
with clients. The walls are lined with dozens of camera models:
domes of all sizes, specializing in day and night, wet and dry,
camouflaged to look like lights, camouflaged to look like smoke
detectors, explosion-proof, the size of a soccer ball, the size
of a ring box.
The workers at FSAN don't just make surveillance
cameras; they are constantly watched by them. While they work,
the silent eyes of rotating lenses capture their every move. When
they leave work and board buses, they are filmed again. When they
walk to their dormitories, the streets are lined with what look
like newly installed streetlamps, their white poles curving toward
the sidewalk with black domes at the ends. Inside the domes are
high-resolution cameras, the same kind the workers produce at
FSAN. Some blocks have three or four, one every few yards. One
Shenzhen-based company, China Security & Surveillance Technology,
has developed software to enable the cameras to alert police when
an unusual number of people begin to gather at any given location.
In 2006, the Chinese government mandated
that all Internet cafes (as well as restaurants and other "entertainment"
venues) install video cameras with direct feeds to their local
police stations. Part of a wider surveillance project known as
"Safe Cities," the effort now encompasses 660 municipalities
in China. It is the most ambitious new government program in the
Pearl River Delta, and supplying it is one of the fastest-growing
new markets in Shenzhen.
But the cameras that Zhang manufactures
are only part of the massive experiment in population control
that is under way here. "The big picture," Zhang tells
me in his office at the factory, "is integration." That
means linking cameras with other forms of surveillance: the Internet,
phones, facial-recognition software and GPS monitoring.
This is how this Golden Shield will work:
Chinese citizens will be watched around the clock through networked
CCTV cameras and remote monitoring of computers. They will be
listened to on their phone calls, monitored by digital voice-recognition
technologies. Their Internet access will be aggressively limited
through the country's notorious system of online controls known
as the "Great Firewall." Their movements will be tracked
through national ID cards with scannable computer chips and photos
that are instantly uploaded to police databases and linked to
their holder's personal data. This is the most important element
of all: linking all these tools together in a massive, searchable
database of names, photos, residency information, work history
and biometric data. When Golden Shield is finished, there will
be a photo in those databases for every person in China: 1.3 billion
Shenzhen is the place where the shield
has received its most extensive fortifications - the place where
all the spy toys are being hooked together and tested to see what
they can do. "The central government eventually wants to
have city-by-city surveillance, so they could just sit and monitor
one city and its surveillance system as a whole," Zhang says.
"It's all part of that bigger project. Once the tests are
done and it's proven, they will be spreading from the big province
to the cities, even to the rural farmland."
In fact, the rollout of the high-tech
shield is already well under way.
When the Tibetan capital of Lhasa was
set alight in March, the world caught a glimpse of the rage that
lies just under the surface in many parts of China. And though
the Lhasa riots stood out for their ethnic focus and their intensity,
protests across China are often shockingly militant. In July 2006,
workers at a factory near Shenzhen expressed their displeasure
over paltry pay by overturning cars, smashing computers and opening
fire hydrants. In March of last year, when bus fares went up in
the rural town of Zhushan, 20,000 people took to the streets and
five police vehicles were torched. Indeed, China has seen levels
of political unrest in recent years unknown since 1989, the year
student protests were crushed with tanks in Tiananmen Square.
In 2005, by the government's own measure, there were at least
87,000 "mass incidents" - governmentspeak for large-scale
protests or riots.
This increased unrest - a process aided
by access to cellphones and the Internet - represents more than
a security problem for the leaders in Beijing. It threatens their
whole model of command-and-control capitalism. China's rapid economic
growth has relied on the ability of its rulers to raze villages
and move mountains to make way for the latest factory towns and
shopping malls. If the people living on those mountains use blogs
and text messaging to launch a mountain-people's-rights uprising
with each new project, and if they link up with similar uprisings
in other parts of the country, China's dizzying expansion could
grind to a halt.
At the same time, the success of China's
ravenous development creates its own challenges. Every rural village
that is successfully razed to make way for a new project creates
more displaced people who join the ranks of the roughly 130 million
migrants roaming the country looking for work. By 2025, it is
projected that this "floating" population will swell
to more than 350 million. Many will end up in cities like Shenzhen,
which is already home to 7 million migrant laborers.
But while China's cities need these displaced
laborers to work in factories and on construction sites, they
are unwilling to offer them the same benefits as permanent residents:
highly subsidized education and health care, as well as other
public services. While migrants can live for decades in big cities
like Shenzhen and Guangzhou, their residency remains fixed to
the rural community where they were born, a fact encoded on their
national ID cards. As one young migrant in Guangzhou put it to
me, "The local people want to make money from migrant workers,
but they don't want to give them rights. But why are the local
people so rich? Because of the migrant workers!"
With its militant protests and mobile
population, China confronts a fundamental challenge. How can it
maintain a system based on two dramatically unequal categories
of people: the winners, who get the condos and cars, and the losers,
who do the heavy labor and are denied those benefits? More urgently,
how can it do this when information technology threatens to link
the losers together into a movement so large it could easily overwhelm
the country's elites?
The answer is Golden Shield. When Tibet
erupted in protests recently, the surveillance system was thrown
into its first live test, with every supposedly liberating tool
of the Information Age - cellphones, satellite television, the
Internet - transformed into a method of repression and control.
As soon as the protests gathered steam, China reinforced its Great
Firewall, blocking its citizens from accessing dozens of foreign
news outlets. In some parts of Tibet, Internet access was shut
down altogether. Many people trying to phone friends and family
found that their calls were blocked, and cellphones in Lhasa were
blitzed with text messages from the police: "Severely battle
any creation or any spreading of rumors that would upset or frighten
people or cause social disorder or illegal criminal behavior that
could damage social stability."
During the first week of protests, foreign
journalists who tried to get into Tibet were systematically turned
back. But that didn't mean that there were no cameras inside the
besieged areas. Since early last year, activists in Lhasa have
been reporting on the proliferation of black-domed cameras that
look like streetlights - just like the ones I saw coming off the
assembly line in Shenzhen. Tibetan monks complain that cameras
- activated by motion sensors - have invaded their monasteries
and prayer rooms.
During the Lhasa riots, police on the
scene augmented the footage from the CCTVs with their own video
cameras, choosing to film - rather than stop - the violence, which
left 19 dead. The police then quickly cut together the surveillance
shots that made the Tibetans look most vicious - beating Chinese
bystanders, torching shops, ripping metal sheeting off banks -
and created a kind of copumentary: Tibetans Gone Wild. These weren't
the celestial beings in flowing robes the Beastie Boys and Richard
Gere had told us about. They were angry young men, wielding sticks
and long knives. They looked ugly, brutal, tribal. On Chinese
state TV, this footage played around the clock.
The police also used the surveillance
footage to extract mug shots of the demonstrators and rioters.
Photos of the 21 "most wanted" Tibetans, many taken
from that distinctive "streetlamp" view of the domed
cameras, were immediately circulated to all of China's major news
portals, which obediently posted them to help out with the manhunt.
The Internet became the most powerful police tool. Within days,
several of the men on the posters were in custody, along with
hundreds of others.
The flare-up in Tibet, weeks before the
Olympic torch began its global journey, has been described repeatedly
in the international press as a "nightmare" for Beijing.
Several foreign leaders have pledged to boycott the opening ceremonies
of the games, the press has hosted an orgy of China-bashing, and
the torch became a magnet for protesters, with anti-China banners
dropped from the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge. But
inside China, the Tibet debacle may actually have been a boon
to the party, strengthening its grip on power. Despite its citizens
having unprecedented access to information technology (there are
as many Internet users in China as there are in the U.S.), the
party demonstrated that it could still control what they hear
and see. And what they saw on their TVs and computer screens were
violent Tibetans, out to kill their Chinese neighbors, while police
showed admirable restraint. Tibetan solidarity groups say 140
people were killed in the crackdown that followed the protests,
but without pictures taken by journalists, it is as if those subsequent
deaths didn't happen.
Chinese viewers also saw a world unsympathetic
to the Chinese victims of Tibetan violence, so hostile to their
country that it used a national tragedy to try to rob them of
their hard-won Olympic glory. These nationalist sentiments freed
up Beijing to go on a full-fledged witch hunt. In the name of
fighting a war on terror, security forces rounded up thousands
of Tibetan activists and supporters. The end result is that when
the games begin, much of the Tibetan movement will be safely behind
bars - along with scores of Chinese journalists, bloggers and
human-rights defenders who have also been trapped in the government's
Police State 2.0 might not look good from
the outside, but on the inside, it appears to have passed its
first major test.
In Guangzhou, an hour and a half by train
from Shenzhen, Yao Ruoguang is preparing for a major test of his
own. "It's called the 10-million-faces test," he tells
Yao is managing director of Pixel Solutions,
a Chinese company that specializes in producing the new high-tech
national ID cards, as well as selling facial-recognition software
to businesses and government agencies. The test, the first phase
of which is only weeks away, is being staged by the Ministry of
Public Security in Beijing. The idea is to measure the effectiveness
of face-recognition software in identifying police suspects. Participants
will be given a series of photos, taken in a variety of situations.
Their task will be to match the images to other photos of the
same people in the government's massive database. Several biometrics
companies, including Yao's, have been invited to compete. "We
have to be able to match a face in a 10 million database in one
second," Yao tells me. "We are preparing for that now."
The companies that score well will be
first in line for lucrative government contracts to integrate
face-recognition software into Golden Shield, using it to check
for ID fraud and to discover the identities of suspects caught
on surveillance cameras. Yao says the technology is almost there:
"It will happen next year."
When I meet Yao at his corporate headquarters,
he is feeling confident about how his company will perform in
the test. His secret weapon is that he will be using facial-recognition
software purchased from L-1 Identity Solutions, a major U.S. defense
contractor that produces passports and biometric security systems
for the U.S. government.
To show how well it works, Yao demonstrates
on himself. Using a camera attached to his laptop, he snaps a
picture of his own face, round and boyish for its 54 years. Then
he uploads it onto the company's proprietary Website, built with
L-1 software. With the cursor, he marks his own eyes with two
green plus signs, helping the system to measure the distance between
his features, a distinctive aspect of our faces that does not
change with disguises or even surgery. The first step is to "capture
the image," Yao explains. Next is "finding the face."
He presses APPLY, telling the program
to match the new face with photos of the same person in the company's
database of 600,000 faces. Instantly, multiple photos of Yao appear,
including one taken 19 years earlier - proof that the technology
can "find a face" even when the face has changed significantly
with time. "
It took 1.1 milliseconds!" Yao exclaims.
"Yeah, that's me!"
In nearby cubicles, teams of Yao's programmers
and engineers take each other's pictures, mark their eyes with
green plus signs and test the speed of their search engines. "Everyone
is preparing for the test," Yao explains. "If we pass,
if we come out number one, we are guaranteed a market in China."
Every couple of minutes Yao's phone beeps.
Sometimes it's a work message, but most of the time it's a text
from his credit-card company, informing him that his daughter,
who lives in Australia, has just made another charge. "Every
time the text message comes, I know my daughter is spending money!"
He shrugs: "She likes designers."
Like many other security executives I
interviewed in China, Yao denies that a primary use of the technology
he is selling is to hunt down political activists. "Ninety-five
percent," he insists, "is just for regular safety."
He has, he admits, been visited by government spies, whom he describes
as "the internal-security people." They came with grainy
pictures, shot from far away or through keyhole cameras, of "some
protesters, some dissidents." They wanted to know if Yao's
facial-recognition software could help identify the people in
the photos. Yao was sorry to disappoint them. "Honestly,
the technology so far still can't meet their needs," he says.
"The photos that they show us were just too blurry."
That is rapidly changing, of course, thanks to the spread of high-resolution
CCTVs. Yet Yao insists that the government's goal is not repression:
"If you're a [political] organizer, they want to know your
motive," he says. "So they take the picture, give the
photo, so at least they can find out who that person is."
Until recently, Yao's photography empire
was focused on consumers - taking class photos at schools, launching
a Chinese knockoff of Flickr (the original is often blocked by
the Great Firewall), turning photos of chubby two-year-olds into
fridge magnets and lampshades. He still maintains those businesses,
which means that half of the offices at Pixel Solutions look like
they have just hosted a kid's birthday party. The other half looks
like an ominous customs office, the walls lined with posters of
terrorists in the cross hairs: FACE MATCH, FACE PASS, FACE WATCH.
When Beijing started sinking more and more of the national budget
into surveillance technologies, Yao saw an opportunity that would
make all his previous ventures look small. Between more powerful
computers, higher-resolution cameras and a global obsession with
crime and terrorism, he figured that face recognition "should
be the next dot-com."
Not a computer scientist himself - he
studied English literature in school - Yao began researching corporate
leaders in the field. He learned that face recognition is highly
controversial, with a track record of making wrong IDs. A few
companies, however, were scoring much higher in controlled tests
in the U.S. One of them was a company soon to be renamed L-1 Identity
Solutions. Based in Connecticut, L-1 was created two years ago
out of the mergers and buyouts of half a dozen major players in
the biometrics field, all of which specialized in the science
of identifying people through distinct physical traits: fingerprints,
irises, face geometry. The mergers made L-1 a one-stop shop for
biometrics. Thanks to board members like former CIA director George
Tenet, the company rapidly became a homeland-security heavy hitter.
L-1 projects its annual revenues will hit $1 billion by 2011,
much of it from U.S. government contracts.
In 2006, Yao tells me, "I made the
first phone call and sent the first e-mail." For a flat fee
of $20,000, he gained access to the company's proprietary software,
allowing him to "build a lot of development software based
on L-1's technology." Since then, L-1's partnership with
Yao has gone far beyond that token investment. Yao says it isn't
really his own company that is competing in the upcoming 10-million-faces
test being staged by the Chinese government: "We'll be involved
on behalf of L-1 in China." Yao adds that he communicates
regularly with L1 and has visited the company's research headquarters
in New Jersey. ("Out the window you can see the Statue of
Liberty. It's such a historic place.") L1 is watching his
test preparations with great interest, Yao says. "It seemed
that they were more excited than us when we tell them the results."
L-1's enthusiasm is hardly surprising:
If Yao impresses the Ministry of Public Security with the company's
ability to identify criminals, L-1 will have cracked the largest
potential market for biometrics in the world. But here's the catch:
As proud as Yao is to be L-1's Chinese licensee, L-1 appears to
be distinctly less proud of its association with Yao. On its Website
and in its reports to investors, L-1 boasts of contracts and negotiations
with governments from Panama and Saudi Arabia to Mexico and Turkey.
China, however, is conspicuously absent. And though CEO Bob LaPenta
makes reference to "some large international opportunities,"
not once does he mention Pixel Solutions in Guangzhou.
After leaving a message with the company
inquiring about L-1's involvement in China's homeland-security
market, I get a call back from Doni Fordyce, vice president of
corporate communications. She has consulted Joseph Atick, the
company's head of research. "We have nothing in China,"
she tells me. "Nothing, absolutely nothing. We are uninvolved.
We really don't have any relationships at all."
I tell Fordyce about Yao, the 10-million
test, the money he paid for the software license. She'll call
me right back. When she does, 20 minutes later, it is with this
news: "Absolutely, we've sold testing SDKs [software development
kits] to Pixel Solutions and to others [in China] that may be
entering a test." Yao's use of the technology, she said,
is "within his license" purchased from L-1.
The company's reticence to publicize its
activities in China could have something to do with the fact that
the relationship between Yao and L-1 may well be illegal under
U.S. law. After the Chinese government sent tanks into Tiananmen
Square in 1989, Congress passed legislation barring U.S. companies
from selling any products in China that have to do with "crime
control or detection instruments or equipment." That means
not only guns but everything from police batons and handcuffs
to ink and powder for taking fingerprints, and software for storing
them. Interestingly, one of the "detection instruments"
that prompted the legislation was the surveillance camera. Beijing
had installed several clunky cameras around Tiananmen Square,
originally meant to monitor traffic flows. Those lenses were ultimately
used to identify and arrest key pro-democracy dissidents.
"The intent of that act," a
congressional staff member with considerable China experience
tells me, "was to keep U.S. companies out of the business
of helping the Chinese police conduct their business, which might
ultimately end up as it did in 1989 in the suppression of human
rights and democracy in China."
Pixel's application of L-1 facial-recognition
software seems to fly in the face of the ban's intent. By his
own admission, Yao is already getting visits from Chinese state
spies anxious to use facial recognition to identify dissidents.
And as part of the 10-million-faces test, Yao has been working
intimately with Chinese national-security forces, syncing L-1's
software to their vast database, a process that took a week of
intensive work in Beijing. During that time, Yao says, he was
on the phone "every day" with L-1, getting its help
adapting the technology. "Because we are representing them,"
he says. "We took the test on their behalf."
In other words, this controversial U.S.
"crime control" technology has already found its way
into the hands of the Chinese police. Moreover, Yao's goal, stated
to me several times, is to use the software to land lucrative
contracts with police agencies to integrate facial recognition
into the newly built system of omnipresent surveillance cameras
and high-tech national ID cards. As part of any contract he gets,
Yao says, he will "pay L-1 a certain percentage of our sales."
When I put the L-1 scenario to the Commerce
Department's Bureau of Industry and Security - the division charged
with enforcing the post-Tiananmen export controls - a representative
says that software kits are subject to the sanctions if "they
are exported from the U.S. or are the foreign direct product of
a U.S.-origin item." Based on both criteria, the software
kit sold to Yao seems to fall within the ban.
When I ask Doni Fordyce at L-1 about the
embargo, she tells me, "I don't know anything about that."
Asked whether she would like to find out about it and call me
back, she replies, "I really don't want to comment, so there
is no comment." Then she hangs up.
You have probably never heard of L-1,
but there is every chance that it has heard of you. Few companies
have collected as much sensitive information about U.S. citizens
and visitors to America as L-1: It boasts a database of 60 million
records, and it "captures" more than a million new fingerprints
every year. Here is a small sample of what the company does: produces
passports and passport cards for American citizens; takes finger
scans of visitors to the U.S. under the Department of Homeland
Security's massive U.S.-Visit program; equips U.S. soldiers in
Iraq and Afghanistan with "mobile iris and multimodal devices"
so they can collect biometric data in the field; maintains the
State Department's "largest facial-recognition database system";
and produces driver's licenses in Illinois, Montana and North
Carolina. In addition, L-1 has an even more secretive intelligence
unit called SpecTal. Asked by a Wall Street analyst to discuss,
in "extremely general" terms, what the division was
doing with contracts worth roughly $100 million, the company's
CEO would only say, "Stay tuned."
It is L-1's deep integration with multiple
U.S. government agencies that makes its dealings in China so interesting:
It isn't just L-1 that is potentially helping the Chinese police
to nab political dissidents, it's U.S. taxpayers. The technology
that Yao purchased for just a few thousand dollars is the result
of Defense Department research grants and contracts going as far
back as 1994, when a young academic named Joseph Atick (the research
director Fordyce consulted on L-1's China dealings) taught a computer
at Rockefeller University to recognize his face.
Yao, for his part, knows all about the
U.S. export controls on police equipment to China. He tells me
that L-1's electronic fingerprinting tools are "banned from
entering China" due to U.S. concerns that they will be used
to "catch the political criminals, you know, the dissidents,
more easily." He thinks he and L-1 have found a legal loophole,
however. While fingerprinting technology appears on the Commerce
Department's list of banned products, there is no explicit mention
of "face prints" - likely because the idea was still
in the realm of science fiction when the Tiananmen Square massacre
took place. As far as Yao is concerned, that omission means that
L-1 can legally supply its facial-recognition software for use
by the Chinese government.
Whatever the legality of L-1's participation
in Chinese surveillance, it is clear that U.S. companies are determined
to break into the homeland-security market in China, which represents
their biggest growth potential since 9/11. According to the congressional
staff member, American companies and their lobbyists are applying
"enormous pressure to open the floodgates."
The crackdown in Tibet has set off a wave
of righteous rallies and boycott calls. But it sidesteps the uncomfortable
fact that much of China's powerful surveillance state is already
being built with U.S. and European technology. In February 2006,
a congressional subcommittee held a hearing on "The Internet
in China: A Tool for Freedom or Suppression?" Called on the
carpet were Google (for building a special Chinese search engine
that blocked sensitive material), Cisco (for supplying hardware
for China's Great Firewall), Microsoft (for taking down political
blogs at the behest of Beijing) and Yahoo (for complying with
requests to hand over e-mail-account information that led to the
arrest and imprisonment of a high-profile Chinese journalist,
as well as a dissident who had criticized corrupt officials in
online discussion groups). The issue came up again during the
recent Tibet uproar when it was discovered that both MSN and Yahoo
had briefly put up the mug shots of the "most wanted"
Tibetan protesters on their Chinese news portals.
In all of these cases, U.S. multinationals
have offered the same defense: Cooperating with draconian demands
to turn in customers and censor material is, unfortunately, the
price of doing business in China. Some, like Google, have argued
that despite having to limit access to the Internet, they are
contributing to an overall increase of freedom in China. It's
a story that glosses over the much larger scandal of what is actually
taking place: Western investors stampeding into the country, possibly
in violation of the law, with the sole purpose of helping the
Communist Party spend billions of dollars building Police State
2.0. This isn't an unfortunate cost of doing business in China:
It's the goal of doing business in China. "Come help us spy!"
the Chinese government has said to the world. And the world's
leading technology companies are eagerly answering the call.
As The New York Times recently reported,
aiding and abetting Beijing has become an investment boom for
U.S. companies. Honeywell is working with Chinese police to "set
up an elaborate computer monitoring system to analyze feeds from
indoor and outdoor cameras in one of Beijing's most populated
districts." General Electric is providing Beijing police
with a security system that controls "thousands of video
cameras simultaneously, and automatically alerts them to suspicious
or fast-moving objects, like people running." IBM, meanwhile,
is installing its "Smart Surveillance System" in the
capital, another system for linking video cameras and scanning
for trouble, while United Technologies is in Guangzhou, helping
to customize a "2,000-camera network in a single large neighborhood,
the first step toward a citywide network of 250,000 cameras to
be installed before the Asian Games in 2010." By next year,
the Chinese internal-security market will be worth an estimated
$33 billion - around the same amount Congress has allocated for
"We're at the start of a massive
boom in Chinese security spending," according to Graham Summers,
a market analyst who publishes an investor newsletter in Baltimore.
"And just as we need to be aware of how to profit from the
growth in China's commodity consumption, we need to be aware of
companies that will profit from 'security consumption.' . . .
There's big money to be made."
While U.S. companies are eager to break
into China's rapidly expanding market, every Chinese security
firm I come across in the Pearl River Delta is hatching some kind
of plan to break into the U.S. market. No one, however, is quite
as eager as Aebell Electrical Technology, one of China's top 10
security companies. Aebell has a contract to help secure the Olympic
swimming stadium in Beijing and has installed more than 10,000
cameras in and around Guangzhou. Business has been growing by
100 percent a year. When I meet the company's fidgety general
manager, Zheng Sun Man, the first thing he tells me is "We
are going public at the end of this year. On the Nasdaq."
It also becomes clear why he has chosen to speak with a foreign
reporter: "Help, help, help!" he begs me. "Help
us promote our products!"
Zheng, an MBA from one of China's top
schools, proudly shows me the business card of the New York investment
bank that is handling Aebell's IPO, as well as a newly printed
English-language brochure showing off the company's security cameras.
Its pages are filled with American iconography, including businessmen
exchanging wads of dollar bills and several photos of the New
York skyline that prominently feature the World Trade Center.
In the hall at company headquarters is a poster of two interlocking
hearts: one depicting the American flag, the other the Aebell
I ask Zheng whether China's surveillance
boom has anything to do with the rise in strikes and demonstrations
in recent years. Zheng's deputy, a 23-year veteran of the Chinese
military wearing a black Mao suit, responds as if I had launched
a direct attack on the Communist Party itself. "If you walk
out of this building, you will be under surveillance in five to
six different ways," he says, staring at me hard. He lets
the implication of his words linger in the air like an unspoken
threat. "If you are a law-abiding citizen, you shouldn't
be afraid," he finally adds. "The criminals are the
only ones who should be afraid."
One of the first people to sound the alarm
on China's upgraded police state was a British researcher named
Greg Walton. In 2000, Walton was commissioned by the respected
human-rights organization Rights & Democracy to investigate
the ways in which Chinese security forces were harnessing the
tools of the Information Age to curtail free speech and monitor
political activists. The paper he produced was called "China's
Golden Shield: Corporations and the Development of Surveillance
Technology in the People's Republic of China." It exposed
how big-name tech companies like Nortel and Cisco were helping
the Chinese government to construct "a gigantic online database
with an all-encompassing surveillance network - incorporating
speech and face recognition, closed-circuit television, smart
cards, credit records and Internet surveillance technologies."
When the paper was complete, Walton met
with the institute's staff to strategize about how to release
his explosive findings. "We thought this information was
going to shock the world," he recalls. In the midst of their
discussions, a colleague barged in and announced that a plane
had hit the Twin Towers. The meeting continued, but they knew
the context of their work had changed forever.
Walton's paper did have an impact, but
not the one he had hoped. The revelation that China was constructing
a gigantic digital database capable of watching its citizens on
the streets and online, listening to their phone calls and tracking
their consumer purchases sparked neither shock nor outrage. Instead,
Walton says, the paper was "mined for ideas" by the
U.S. government, as well as by private companies hoping to grab
a piece of the suddenly booming market in spy tools. For Walton,
the most chilling moment came when the Defense Department tried
to launch a system called Total Information Awareness to build
what it called a "virtual, centralized grand database"
that would create constantly updated electronic dossiers on every
citizen, drawing on banking, credit-card, library and phone records,
as well as footage from surveillance cameras. "It was clearly
similar to what we were condemning China for," Walton says.
Among those aggressively vying to be part of this new security
boom was Joseph Atick, now an executive at L-1. The name he chose
for his plan to integrate facial-recognition software into a vast
security network was uncomfortably close to the surveillance system
being constructed in China: "Operation Noble Shield."
Empowered by the Patriot Act, many of
the big dreams hatched by men like Atick have already been put
into practice at home. New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.,
are all experimenting with linking surveillance cameras into a
single citywide network. Police use of surveillance cameras at
peaceful demonstrations is now routine, and the images collected
can be mined for "face prints," then cross-checked with
ever-expanding photo databases. Although Total Information Awareness
was scrapped after the plans became public, large pieces of the
project continue, with private data-mining companies collecting
unprecedented amounts of information about everything from Web
browsing to car rentals, and selling it to the government.
Such efforts have provided China's rulers
with something even more valuable than surveillance technology
from Western democracies: the ability to claim that they are just
like us. Liu Zhengrong, a senior official dealing with China's
Internet policy, has defended Golden Shield and other repressive
measures by invoking the Patriot Act and the FBI's massive e-mail-mining
operations. "It is clear that any country's legal authorities
closely monitor the spread of illegal information," he said.
"We have noted that the U.S. is doing a good job on this
front." Lin Jiang Huai, the head of China Information Security
Technology, credits America for giving him the idea to sell biometric
IDs and other surveillance tools to the Chinese police. "Bush
helped me get my vision," he has said. Similarly, when challenged
on the fact that dome cameras are appearing three to a block in
Shenzhen and Guangzhou, Chinese companies respond that their model
is not the East German Stasi but modern-day London.
Human-rights activists are quick to point
out that while the tools are the same, the political contexts
are radically different. China has a government that uses its
high-tech web to imprison and torture peaceful protesters, Tibetan
monks and independent-minded journalists. Yet even here, the lines
are getting awfully blurry. The U.S. currently has more people
behind bars than China, despite a population less than a quarter
of its size. And Sharon Hom, executive director of the advocacy
group Human Rights in China, says that when she talks about China's
horrific human-rights record at international gatherings, "There
are two words that I hear in response again and again: Guantánamo
The Fourth Amendment prohibition against
illegal search and seizure made it into the U.S. Constitution
precisely because its drafters understood that the power to snoop
is addictive. Even if we happen to trust in the good intentions
of the snoopers, the nature of any government can change rapidly
- which is why the Constitution places limits on the tools available
to any regime. But the drafters could never have imagined the
commercial pressures at play today. The global homeland-security
business is now worth an estimated $200 billion - more than Hollywood
and the music industry combined. Any sector of that size inevitably
takes on its own momentum. New markets must be found - which,
in the Big Brother business, means an endless procession of new
enemies and new emergencies: crime, immigration, terrorism.
In Shenzhen one night, I have dinner with
a U.S. business consultant named Stephen Herrington. Before he
started lecturing at Chinese business schools, teaching students
concepts like brand management, Herrington was a military-intelligence
officer, ascending to the rank of lieutenant colonel. What he
is seeing in the Pearl River Delta, he tells me, is scaring the
hell out of him - and not for what it means to China.
"I can guarantee you that there are
people in the Bush administration who are studying the use of
surveillance technologies being developed here and have at least
skeletal plans to implement them at home," he says. "We
can already see it in New York with CCTV cameras. Once you have
the cameras in place, you have the infrastructure for a powerful
tracking system. I'm worried about what this will mean if the
U.S. government goes totalitarian and starts employing these technologies
more than they are already. I'm worried about the threat this
poses to American democracy."
Herrington pauses. "George W. Bush,"
he adds, "would do what they are doing here in a heartbeat
if he could."
China-bashing never fails to soothe the
Western conscience - here is a large and powerful country that,
when it comes to human rights and democracy, is so much worse
than Bush's America. But during my time in Shenzhen, China's youngest
and most modern city, I often have the feeling that I am witnessing
not some rogue police state but a global middle ground, the place
where more and more countries are converging. China is becoming
more like us in very visible ways (Starbucks, Hooters, cellphones
that are cooler than ours), and we are becoming more like China
in less visible ones (torture, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite
detention, though not nearly on the Chinese scale).
What is most disconcerting about China's
surveillance state is how familiar it all feels. When I check
into the Sheraton in Shenzhen, for instance, it looks like any
other high-end hotel chain - only the lobby is a little more modern
and the cheerful clerk doesn't just check my passport but takes
a scan of it.
"Are you making a copy?" I ask.
"No, no," he responds helpfully.
"We're just sending a copy to the police."
Up in my room, the Website that pops up
on my laptop looks like every other Net portal at a hotel - only
it won't let me access human-rights and labor Websites that I
know are working fine. The TV gets CNN International - only with
strange edits and obviously censored blackouts. My cellphone picks
up a strong signal for the China Mobile network. A few months
earlier, in Davos, Switzerland, the CEO of China Mobile bragged
to a crowd of communications executives that "we not only
know who you are, we also know where you are." Asked about
customer privacy, he replied that his company only gives "this
kind of data to government authorities" - pretty much the
same answer I got from the clerk at the front desk.
When I leave China, I feel a powerful
relief: I have escaped. I am home safe. But the feeling starts
to fade as soon as I get to the customs line at JFK, watching
hundreds of visitors line up to have their pictures taken and
fingers scanned. In the terminal, someone hands me a brochure
for "Fly Clear." All I need to do is have my fingerprints
and irises scanned, and I can get a Clear card with a biometric
chip that will let me sail through security. Later, I look it
up: The company providing the technology is L-1.