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A NOT-SO-HEAVENLY NET

China’s facial recognition system known as “SkyNet”, literally translated as the “net of heaven”, will go hand in hand with a “social credit” system to be launched in 2020. There is an expression in Chinese that says the “net of heaven leaves no evil uncaught” but many people find the entire surveillance concept dystopian.

In March 2018, Chinese media reported that China had rolled out an advanced facial recognition system, over sixteen Chinese provinces, cities and autonomous regions. Ostensibly launched for the “security and protection” of the country, the advanced surveillance system,called SkyNet, is able to identify as many as forty facial features, regardless of angles and lighting, at an accuracy rate of 99.8 percent. It also scans faces and compares them with its database at a speed of 3 billion times a second which effectively means that almost the entire Chinese population of over 1.4 billion people could be compared in the system within only one second. Perhaps China could have named the system after something other than the dystopian AI-controlled national defense system that led to the end of civilization in the Terminator film series.

According to a June 2017 article in the Washington Post,there were 170 million surveillance cameras in China and by 2020 the country plans to have 570 million. That’s nearly one camera for every two citizens. Facial-recognition cameras are being used in China for routine activities such as gaining entrance to a workplace, withdrawing cash from an ATM and unlocking a smartphone. A KFC restaurant in Beijing is scanning customer faces, then making menu suggestions based on gender and age estimates. One popular park in the capital has deployed cameras to fight toilet-paper theft in restrooms, using face-scanning dispensers that limit each person to one length of paper every nine minutes. Other existing uses include a running track where people can’t take shortcuts and churches, mosques and temples where cameras keep their eyes on the congregation. Future possibilities include police cars with roof-mounted cameras able to scan in all directions at once. Researchers at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Sichuan province have developed a working prototype which functions at up to speeds of 120 kilometers per hour.

Facial recognition technology is just a small part of the artificial intelligence industry that China wants to pioneer. According to a report by CB Insights, five times as many AI patents were applied for in China than the US in 2017. And, for the first time, China’s AI industry attracted more investment than the US.

Imagine a world where many of your daily activities are constantly monitored and evaluated: what you buy at the shops and online; where you are at any given time; who your friends are and how you interact with them; how many hours you spend watching television or playing video games; and what bills and taxes you pay (or not). It’s not hard to imagine because most of that already happens via data-collecting companies such as Google, Facebook and Instagram or health-tracking apps such as Fitbit.

But it gets worse. On June 14, 2014, China’s State Council announced plans for a national “social credit system” to be in place by 2020. The goal,it said, was to raise awareness for “integrities and the level of credibility” within society and a means to perfect the “socialist market economy” The plan focuses on four areas: “honesty in government affairs”, “commercial integrity”, “societal integrity”, and “judicial credibility”. The plans include credit assessment for businesses operating in China.

And so now imagine a system where all your behaviors are rated as either “positive” or “negative” and distilled into a single number, according to rules set by the government. That would create your “citizen score” and it would tell everyone whether or not you were trustworthy. Your rating would be publicly ranked against that of the entire population and used to determine your eligibility for a mortgage or a job, or where your children can go to school. As of mid-2018, it was unclear whether the system will be an “ecosystem” of various scores and blacklists run by both government agencies and private companies, or if it will be one unified system. It is also unclear whether there will be a single system-wide social credit score for each citizen and business. However,some restrictions have already been placed on Chinese citizens, which state-media described as the first step toward creating the system. In February 2017, China’s Supreme People’s Court announced that 6.15 million of its citizens had been banned from taking flights over the past four years for “social misdeeds”.

Against this Orwellian background, Apple Inc. announced in February of this year that it would begin hosting Chinese users’ iCloud accounts in a new Chinese data center. Until now, iCloud encryption keys have always been stored in the United States, meaning that any government or law enforcement authority seeking access to a Chinese iCloud account needed to go through the U.S. legal system. Now, according to Apple, for the first time, under a contractual arrangement with state owned firm Guizhou-Cloud Big Data Industry Co Ltd (GCBD) based in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou and known to have close ties with the Chinese Communist Party,the keys for Chinese iCloud accounts will be stored in China itself. In late June GCBD struck a deal with China Telecom to migrate all in-country customer data to servers housed at the state-owned firm’s Tianyi Cloud.

Chinese authorities will no longer have to use the U.S. courts to seek information on iCloud users and can instead use their own legal system to ask Apple to hand over iCloud data for Chinese users. Human rights activists say they fear the Chinese authorities will use that power to track down dissidents, citing cases from more than a decade ago in which Yahoo Inc handed over user data that led to arrests and prison sentences for two democracy advocates. Jing Zhao, a human rights activist and Apple shareholder, said he could envisage worse human rights issues arising from Apple handing over iCloud data than occurred in the Yahoo case.

In its own defense, Apple said it had no choice but to comply with recently introduced Chinese laws that require cloud services offered to Chinese citizens be operated by Chinese companies and that the data be stored in China. It said that while Apple’s values don’t change in different parts of the world, it is subject to each country’s laws.“While we advocated against iCloud being subject to these laws, we were ultimately unsuccessful,” it said. Apple claims Chinese authorities do not have any kind of “backdoor” into user data and that Apple alone, not GCBD, will control the encryption keys. Any information in the iCloud account, it said, could only be accessible to Chinese authorities who can present Apple with a legal order. Moreover, Apple says the keys stored in China will be specific to the data of Chinese customers, meaning Chinese authorities can’t ask Apple to use them to decrypt data in other countries like the United States.

While Apple says it will only respond to valid legal requests in China, Chinese legal experts point out that China’s domestic legal process is very different than that in the U.S., lacking anything quite like an American “warrant” reviewed by an independent court. Court approval isn’t required under Chinese law and police can issue and execute warrants. “Even very early in a criminal investigation, police have broad powers to collect evidence,” said Jeremy Daum, an attorney and research fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center in Beijing.“(They are) authorized by internal police procedures rather than independent court review, and the public has an obligation to cooperate.” There are few penalties for breaking what rules do exist around obtaining warrants in China. And while China does have data privacy laws, there are broad exceptions when authorities investigate criminal acts, which can include undermining communist values, “picking quarrels” online, or even using a virtual private network to browse the internet privately.

Meanwhile, in what appeared to be an effort to gain advantage in the intensify – ing “trade war” with the United States, China has threatened to retaliate against Apple Inc with an incredible public statement. In an article titled “Strong sales of US brands including Apple give China bargaining chips in trade row” published on 7 August,The People’s Daily said that “China is by far the most important overseas market for the U.S.-based Apple, leaving it exposed if Chinese people make it a target of anger and nationalist sentiment”The article went on to say that “China doesn’t want to close its doors to Apple despite the trade conflict, but if the U.S. company wants to earn good money in China, it needs to share its development dividends with the Chinese people.”The article in China’s most authoritative publication, added one more implied threat: “It is impractical and unreasonable to kick the company out of China, but if Apple wants to continue raking in enormous profits from the Chinese markets amid trade tensions, the company needs to do more to share the economic cake with lo – cal Chinese people.”

Apple Inc. isn’t the only U.S. tech company under fire for caving into the demands of the Chinese government. On 1 August, The Intercept,a news organization in the United States, revealed that, according to leaked internal documents marked “Google confidential”, Google is planning to launch a censored version of its search engine in China that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest. The project, code-named Dragonfly, has been underway since spring of last year, and accelerated following a December 2017 meeting between Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, and Wang Huning, a lead – ing figure in the communist party. Wang is President Xi’s top foreign policy adviser and has been described as “China’s Kiss – inger.” The leaked documents revealed that teams of programmers and engineers at Google have created a custom Android app, different versions of which have been named “Maotai” and “Long – fei.” The app has already been demon – strated to the Chinese government and the finalized version could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending approval from Chinese officials. Google’s search service cannot currently be accessed by most internet users in China because it is blocked by the country’s socalled “Great Firewall”. The app Google is building for China will comply with the country’s strict censorship laws, restricting access to content that the communist party regime deems unfavorable.

China now has more than 750 million internet users, equivalent to the entire population of Europe. However, the Chinese government blocks information on the internet about political opponents, free speech, sex, news, and academic studies. It bans websites about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, for instance, and references to “anti-communism” and “dissidents.” Mentions of books that negatively portray authoritarian governments, such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, have been prohibited on Weibo, a Chinese social media website. The country also censors popular Western social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as American news organizations such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

The documents seen by The Intercept say that Google’s Chinese search app will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall. When a person carries out a search, banned websites will be removed from the first page of results, and a disclaimer will be displayed stating that “some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements.” Examples cited in the documents of websites that will be subject to the censorship include those of British news broad – caster BBC and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. The search app will also “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases. The censorship will apply across the platform: Google’s image search, automatic spell check and suggested search features will incorporate the blacklists, meaning that they will not recommend information or photographs the government has banned.

The Intercept said that according to “a source with knowledge of the project” knowledge about Dragonfly has been restricted to just a few hundred members of Google’s 88,000-strong work – force. The source, who had moral and ethical concerns about Google’s role in the censorship, said Dragonfly is being planned by a handful of top executives and managers at the company with no public scrutiny.

Patrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based researcher with human rights group Amnesty International, told The Intercept that Google’s decision to comply with the censorship would be “a big disaster for the information age.”“This has very serious implications not just for China, but for all of us, for freedom of information and internet freedom,” said Poon. “It will set a terrible precedent for many other companies who are still trying to do business in China while maintaining the principles of not succumbing to China’s censor – ship. The biggest search engine in the world obeying the censorship in China is a victory for the Chinese government. It sends a signal that nobody will bother to challenge the censor – ship anymore.”