Two recent stories show how in the People’s Republic of China a Panopticon – or total surveillance society in which people are always observed – is beginning to veer into science-fiction worthy of a Philip K. Dick novel. Earlier this week, The New York Times reported on its year-long deep dive into 100,000 documents connected to technology bids for China’s surveillance technology.
Among its findings, the Times reported that:
- China has more than one-half of the world’s 1 billion surveillance cameras. Many facial recognition cameras now have sound recorders able to catch conversations within a 300-foot radius.
These cameras, long in use in retail, restaurant and traveling spaces, are beginning to invade private spaces like hotels, lounges, and residential buildings.
China is expanding its reliance on IMSI catchers, a device that mimics cellphone towers to intrude into cellphones and sweep up identifying and location data from many phones in a wide area.
China is collecting data to integrate voiceprints, faceprints and DNA samples to weave a comprehensive portrait of the individuals who make up its huge population.
Each of these technologies alone constitute a hideous invasion of personal privacy. Woven together by artificial intelligence under the iron-fisted control of the regime, they constitute the first surveillance system to fully match George Orwell’s nightmare vision in 1984. In one bid request, The Times reports, the police candidly admitted they aim at “controlling and managing people.”
If this wasn’t spooky enough, consider another story in The South China Morning Post, which reports China is developing the ability to detect brainwaves while men watch online pornography (which is illegal in China). This nascent ability to identify the brain’s reaction to a hot button set of visual images could be just the beginning in the development of technology designed to detect subtler forms of emotional mind-reading (like a hostile thought when presented with the image of the Beloved Leader).
China’s breakout into Orwellian surveillance isn’t just a tragedy for the people of China. It poses two dangers to Americans. The first is that the Chinese Communist Party’s hunger for data is leading it to suck up as much global personal information it can hack or buy. This will only get worse as Chinese-made appliances connect to each other over the Internet of Things. The other danger is that a homegrown Panopticon is emerging in the United States. We already see a network being woven together by the spontaneous emergence of robust and integrated technologies, with American authorities sometimes exhibiting the same hunger toward total surveillance as those in China, with the occasional breach of the law and social norms thrown in.
In 2018, 16 U.S. federal agencies and 75 state and local agencies, employ IMSI devices, commonly called “stingrays,” to can sweep up personal and location data from Americans’ cellphones.
A Legal Aid Society lawsuit in New York claims the police have been putting together a “rogue” database of DNA taken from cigarettes, soda bottles and chewing gum. The FBI’s Combined DNA Index System had, as of 2018, 13 million DNA profiles of Americans.
As many as 3,000 local and state agencies rely on facial recognition technology. One private company has amassed more than 1 billion faceprints, worldwide.
Federal agencies routinely get around the Fourth Amendment requirement to obtain a probable cause warrant to scan our personal information by purchasing it from digital data brokers.
Many elements of China’s surveillance state are falling into place across the United States. This is the natural result of a lack of oversight and governing standards to place guardrails around the uses of these technologies. As these technologies become ubiquitous, they will also become more interoperable – able to work together to follow our every utterance and action.
The good news is that we do not live in a dictatorship. It is within our power as Americans to avoid a homegrown Panopticon by passing laws that restrict the use of these awesome surveillance powers under judicial review.
For example, the Senate and House is considering The Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, which would require the government to obtain probable cause warrants before snooping on Americans’ purchased data. The NDO Fairness Act, just passed by the House of Representatives, would require prosecutors in most cases to allow communications providers to let Americans know when a prosecutor has viewed their personal data. The Cell Site Simulator Warrant Act would require government to obtain a warrant to place and use stingray devices.
The passage of these and other surveillance-curbing bills are urgently needed to stop the rise of a total surveillance state at home. But nice sounding bills are meaningless unless they become law. Only Congress and the American people can decide whether we will remain a free society or succumb to technological totalitarianism.
Erik S. Jaffe is the President of the nonprofit Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability and a partner at the law firm of Schaerr | Jaffe, LLP . The views expressed are the author's own.