(by Dahlia Peterson | Brookings Institute) – Across the Chinese government’s surveillance apparatus, its many arms are busy collecting huge volumes of data. Video surveillance footage, WeChat accounts, e-commerce data, medical history, and hotel records: It’s all fair game for the government’s surveillance regime. Yet, taken individually, each of these data streams don’t tell authorities very much. That’s why the Chinese government has embarked on a massive project of data fusion, which merges disparate datasets to produce data-driven analysis. This is how Chinese surveillance systems achieve what authorities call “visualization” (可视化) and “police informatization” (警务信息化).
While policymakers around the world have grown increasingly aware of China’s mass surveillance regime—from its most repressive practices in Xinjiang to its exports of surveillance platforms to more than 80 countries—relatively little attention has been paid to how Chinese authorities are making use of the data it collects. As countries and companies consider how to respond to China’s surveillance regime, policymakers need to understand data fusion’s crucial role in monitoring the country’s population in order to craft effective responses.
Data fusion in Chinese surveillance programs
As China’s population has embraced online life, the Party-state’s mass surveillance practices have evolved from relying on more manual methods—such as dānwèi (单位) work units, the hùkǒu (户口) residency registration system, and dǎng’àn (档案) secret political files—to using technologies that range from the mundane to the cutting-edge. To achieve the goal of “stability maintenance” (维稳), China’s national surveillance programs utilize varying degrees of data fusion. Data fusion is present, for example, in national defense crisis response platforms (国防动员) developed in the mid-2010s that gather data from multiple “thematic clouds,” including e-commerce, tourism, industry, courts, and law enforcement. Other recent programs that rely on data fusion include Sharp Eyes (雪亮工程), the nation-wide Police Cloud (警务云), and Xinjiang’s Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP, 一体化联合作战平台).
One of the Chinese government’s most prominent data fusion programs is Sharp Eyes, which was launched in 2015 by nine government bodies. The program builds on the infrastructure used by Skynet—a 2005 initiative that focused on surveillance in urban public areas—and extends it into rural areas. Sharp Eyes pulls from a wide variety of data sources. These include surveillance cameras—both privately and government-owned and with and without facial-recognition capabilities—and vehicle and license plate recognition cameras. Public and private video surveillance systems collect facial and other attributes from key locations such as hospitals, schools, entertainment venues, hotels, internet cafes, major road intersections, and storefronts. Sharp Eyes also aims to collect “virtual identities,” such as MAC addresses, phone numbers, and WeChat accounts.
Authorities ascertain individuals’ identities by first combining the above information with geographic information source (GIS) data and then sending this data to “societal resource integration platforms,” which exist in Xinjiang and at least four other provinces. According to analysis originally published in the journal China Digital Cable TV, a publication supervised by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Technology, these platforms combine facial and vehicle recognition data and match it against private and public video sources. GIS data is superimposed on live video feeds to provide granular location data. Multiple companies can be involved in one platform project. For example, one local Sharp Eyes project in Fujian Province uses products from prominent (and blacklisted) AI companies such as Yitu, Huawei, and Hikvision. Read Full Article >