Government and governance, National security, Science and technology | East Asia, The World

21 November 2019

Digital surveillance technology is raising all kinds of ethical problems – and China is a chief example. Bias against minority groups and political activists has become imbued in China’s smart city projects, reflecting a new ‘Big Other’ strategy that must be addressed, Fan Yang writes.

In July 2018, I wrote an article entitled China’s Big Brother Smart Cities for Policy Forum which explored how the ‘smartisation’ of the urban space has reconfigured the structure of power and conformity and has sparked resistance against the violation of privacy. These processes have been historically symbolised over half a century as ‘Big Brother’.

However, the rhetoric of ‘Big Brother’ paints an incomplete picture. Of particular concern for marginalised groups, surveillance networks in China’s smart city projects are not always implemented evenly. Instead, they are targeted, and impose a more intensified threat to social ‘others’; the country’s socially and politically marginalised groups. China’s smart city projects appear to be evolving from ‘Big Brother’ projects into ‘Big Other’ projects.

For context, China has approached a smart city framework with great enthusiasm – the project has led to the implementation of an estimated 500 officially ‘smart’ cities as of the end of 2018.

More on this: Will smart cities become the next populist scapegoat?

It is projected that China’s smart cities market is about to reach $59.9 billion by 2023 from $30.4 billion in 2018. Despite increasing market needs and investments, smart cities in China have not succeeded in delivering their promises during the past few years.

Yet while scattered futuristic pilot examples are beginning to be implemented – from CCTV street cameras and smart poles to facial recognition – there is little evidence that this grand vision has been dramatically improving the lives of the public.

Earlier this year, a US congressional committee commissioned a report on China’s development of ‘smart cities’, with a particular focus on whether they were ‘smarter’ than their American counterparts.

However, what the report revealed instead was that the bulk of the resources poured into smart city development has gone into improving surveillance of Chinese citizens by domestic security services: In 2019, an estimated 170 million CCTV cameras have been installed to capture people’s lives.

More on this: Are smart cities leaving us vulnerable to supervillains?

The surveillance effect is more intensified in politically sensitive areas such as Xinjiang, Tibet, rural areas yet to be urbanised, and more recently Hong Kong, where ubiquitous surveillance cameras equipped with the latest iris scanners and facial recognition technology survey the local population as they go about their daily business.

Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang are reportedly required to install a spyware app on their mobile phones to track their online activity.

They must also get QR codes containing their personal information engraved on any knives they purchase and attached to their doorplates in order to help government officials to monitor them.

With the sprawling of urban space into rural areas, QR codes are also used by government officials to identify ‘illegal’ properties that need to be demolished.

In Hong Kong, protesters destroyed the city’s ‘smart lampposts’, which China claimed were used for benign purposes such as providing Wi-Fi networks, featuring cameras to monitor traffic and sensors to track air quality, over fears that they were being used to spy on the protesters.

Under such conditions, it is fair to point out that there is an uneven implementation of the ‘smartness’ in the smart city project.

We have more data and technology than ever in our daily lives and more social, political, and economic inequality and injustice to go with it.

So what about the future? Surveillance is shaped by the institutional logic in which technologies are designed, implemented and used. We are currently at the beginning of an important discussion about smart cities, where surveillance, privacy, consent, and notice are chief concerns.

Improved technology demands a new line of inquiry into the ethical and inclusive development of future smart cities. We need to create smart cities that have a set of ethical principles and values at their heart.

The challenge is to acknowledge the very real ethical issues and concerns related to surveillance and to address all technology of oppression. Only by finding and adopting solutions to these issues can the benefits of smart city technologies be truly realised. This is no easy task, but it is important, and it is urgent.

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