The first time I ever heard of Shenzhen and the “Special Economic Zone” was when I was working for an international information clearinghouse that should remain nameless. It came up when I was facing the possibility of transferring to our Pan-Asia branch and living there part time. However, over the years, other than being the place where, chances are good, any random bit of tech you have on your desk was manufactured (your iPhone’s been there, as have many other Apple and IBM products, Wal-Mart items and the like) Shenzhen only popped back up on my radar a few months ago as one of the birthplaces of the new surveillance culture.
Chinese officials call it call it “The Golden Shield” and while it’s ostensibly a project of the Chinese Government, it’s being developed by familiar companies like IBM, AT&T, Nortel, Cisco, General Electric, Yahoo, Honeywell, and according to some reports, Google. What the Golden shield comprises is the largest integrated surveillance network in existence. It combines the existing “Great Firewall” which filters almost all net content into China with the “Safe Cities” initiative which includes cameras in all internet cafes, many entertainment venues, and in many cities (2 million cameras in Shenzhen alone by 2010) and a massive photo and biometric information database of all of China’s 1.3 billion citizens.
It’s a massive and lucrative project which is why Western companies are flocking to build a better democracy-free future for China, while here in the US they continue to sell a “freedom friendly” image. Meanwhile the “Golden Shield” has already been tested on examples like the Lhasa riots which recently left anywhere from 16 to 100 people dead as monks clashed with police. The Shield allowed CCTV footage to yield become identities and then locations of many monks and passersby involved in the rioting allowing Chinese police to quickly round up hundreds of people allegedly involved. The same security system is being used, of course, to protect the upcoming 2008 Olympics as well.
As Naomi Klein writes in the Rolling Stone article that many of my statistics are pulled from, these are the kind of companies doing business with China on the sly in order to testbed a new generation of biometrics technologies:
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.”
The good news, though is that the American Government, as they learn about these technologies is only too eager to strip mine them for ideas:
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.
Check out the rest of that excellent article for far more detail on the topic of surveillance culture in China. My goal isn’t to poke at China in particular. For example the draconian national firewall around our old friend Dubai (as well as Saudi Arabia, and Qatar) is built and administered by U.S. based company Secure Computing a.k.a. Smart Filter. Now leaving aside the possibly vastly hypocritical clash behind some of their senior staff’s personal lives (Google boingboing, adult baby, and smartfilter, if you care to) and the technologies they develop to limit internet access for others, once again we have a Western company (this one more public about it since internet censorship is their raison d’etre) implementing and developing censorship technologies overseas.
What prompts this little link-filled rant, then? Well, today the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 passed. This act, for those of you playing along at home or abroad, first of all offers up immunity to Verizon, AT&T, and several other telecom companies for their part in assisting the National Security Agency with warrentless wiretaps before and after the 9/11 attacks. The act then proceeds to arguably weaken oversight of domestic wiretaps and information collection. The Bill passed with overwhelming support, granting retroactive protections for invasions of privacy by a collection of telecom companies.
These are some of the same telecom companies and their interests that, as we’ve seen elsewhere, have their hands on the rudder of a different Web 2.0. One that resembles the satirical USIdent integrated internet/entertainment/surveillance solution from Southland Tales more than it does the Web 2.0 of a thousand blog entries. While it’s easy to see mainly the utopian or fantastic applications of a lot of the technologies we discuss and trumpet on here, so many of them have an equal footing in a parallel version of the future being grown as we speak by some of the same companies produce the cool new future gadgets.
This is one of the reasons I take the “find outbreaks of the future” mandate so seriously. First of all, outbreaks of the future are not always pretty; but secondly, by keeping our eyes open and aggregating this kind of information, we’re at least increasing the odds of being able to pick our own futures. Because honestly? I don’t want the futures that the people are offering “liberation” with jokes about surveillance are selling.
At least, that’s what I tell myself at night.