China Employs Mass Surveillance as Authoritarian Tool in Xinjiang Province

China Employs Mass Surveillance as Authoritarian Tool in Xinjiang Province

May 23, 20193 min read

China has been engaged in high-tech surveillance of citizens in its Xinjiang province, according to a New York Times report, creating “an incubator for increasingly intrusive policing systems” that could expand automated authoritarianism across the country and abroad. One of the prime motivators, ostensibly, is to monitor and subdue minority religious and ethnic groups.

This practice presents obvious, multi-faceted ethical issues, says Benjamin R. Mitchell, PhD, an assistant professor in Villanova’s Department of Computing Sciences with expertise in computer ethics.

“The Chinese government surveillance project in Xinjiang is a perfect example of why we must be cautious and thoughtful about the deployment of technology. Most of the basic technologies being deployed were not originally developed for this application, and many of them have alternative uses which are potentially beneficial, or at the very least less clearly harmful to human rights. But applying these technologies to the surveillance and oppression of large groups of citizens still requires a large, intentional effort, making this as much a social and moral problem as it is a technological one.”

Modern technologies, constantly being refined and developed, have brought us closer to the potential spread of totalitarian states, Dr. Mitchell says.

“George Orwell’s 1984 was intended as a cautionary tale, but there have always been authoritarian regimes that have viewed it as a how-to manual. In the past, however, the manpower requirements for implementing such a system made it impractical to scale up to very large target groups. Modern technologies like automatic facial recognition and machine learning are now beginning to make widespread deployment of such systems possible.”

Decreasing costs of technological surveillance systems will make their misuse even more likely, and those that employ them are justly open to criticism and opposition, Dr. Mitchell noted.

“While the cost and manpower requirements are still likely too high to deploy such a system nationwide, the costs are steadily being driven down through research and development, meaning the development of a totalitarian information state is easier than ever before. It is entirely appropriate to critique governments, companies, or individuals who knowingly contribute to the construction and deployment of systems intended to oppress.”

Although technology plays a key role in the Chinese attempt to oppress or eliminate targeted groups within its own borders, it is certainly not the first of its kind to do so through authoritarian surveillance, says Dr. Mitchell.

“We can look at examples like Nazi Germany or Soviet East Berlin to see how this type of surveillance and suppression has been used in the past; the technological sophistication may have been less, but the risks to human dignity and freedom were broadly the same. The technology is certainly an enabling factor, but the fundamental problems presented here are not new ones. Security is important for human flourishing, but we must remember that the targets of pervasive surveillance can never feel secure; in pursuing security thoughtlessly, we can destroy it. If we are to be moral, we must consider the security of all people, not just those in a position of power,” he concluded.

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