Life, Hope & Truth

From the July/August 2019 issue of Discern Magazine

Big Data Meets Big Brother in China

Repressive dictatorships around the globe today are fusing emerging digital technologies to model the massive “social credit” project emanating from Beijing. What are the prophetic implications of these coercive technologies that seek to quash dissent and change behavior?

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Just after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Ronald Reagan declared that “the Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” Indeed, thanks to innovations from Silicon Valley, the digital revolution did indeed become a great liberalizer through the rapid sharing of ideas.

In recent years, however, many nations have been moving in a very different direction, where information is power, but power concentrated in the hands of the state.

Everybody gets a score

The Communist Party in China, long obsessed with forms of social control, five years ago drew up an ambitious blueprint for a nationwide social credit system (SCS). Across the vast country of 1.4 billion citizens, it aims, by the end of 2020, to assign all citizens a rating based on how they behave at work, in public venues and in their financial dealings.

Armed with unprecedented capabilities to monitor, track and surveil everyone, authorities are amassing what could become the world’s largest data set, pulling together information held by the government and private companies to create what The Economist has called “the world’s first digital totalitarian state” (“China Invents the Digital Totalitarian State,” Dec. 17, 2016).

Tools for good or evil

We live in an increasingly data-driven world, where more than 30 billion devices are expected to be connected to the Internet by 2020. Numerous technology breakthroughs, ranging from artificial intelligence (AI) systems to biometrics and improved algorithms, have all been propelled by ultrafast computing and data transmission speeds. These are enabling the exploitation of what has been called “big data”—colossal amounts of data that can reveal patterns, trends and associations.

While consumers value data speed as essential to operating everything from GPS to smartphones to movie streaming, authoritarian governments can exploit these same technologies to serve their own ideologies.

You are being watched

Ingenious Chinese technology makes possible “smart cities” like Yinchuan, where commuters can use facial identification to board a bus, or Hangzhou, where “smile to pay” facial data can be used to purchase a meal at KFC.

But the overriding goal of all the technological wizardry is quite different. “The government’s objective,” says Maya Wang, China senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, “is to precisely engineer people’s behavior to ensure the Chinese Communist Party maintains indefinite control, and it’s straight up from Orwell” (quoted in “China Uber-Rates Its Citizens,” The Telegraph, May 6, 2019).

According to experts, this sophisticated new set of technologies—some of them now maturing, others poised to emerge over the coming decade—will make all past efforts to spread propaganda and quash dissent look primitive. They will make defiance of the government almost impossible.

China already spends an estimated $200 billion a year on domestic security, with the primary tool being facial recognition systems. Face prints can be instantly compared across a vast database. Development of cheap, easy and fast identification is at the core of the unprecedented social credit system.

China defends the social credit system by insisting it is necessary to root out the pervasive problem of corruption and to modernize a largely agrarian society where most people still have no financial credit rating.

Trustworthiness scoring

Chinese officials believe that by implementing the incredibly sophisticated surveillance system—by 2020 there will be 626 million cameras throughout the country—they will be able to shape behavior through a reward-punishment structure that aims to rate everyone’s “trustworthiness.”

The opaque methodology of trustworthiness scoring is secret, but examples of infractions include bad driving, smoking in nonsmoking zones, sitting in a reserved seat on a train, buying too many video games or posting fake news online. Penalties are assessed for infractions as minor as walking a dog without a leash and jaywalking.

High scores are already a requirement for anyone hoping to get the best housing, install the fastest Internet speeds, put their kids into the most prestigious schools or land the most lucrative jobs.

Restricted everywhere

Conversely, this dystopian system of ostracism and social pressure is designed to completely eliminate mobility—social, class or travel—for those who do not follow the government’s definition of a model citizen.Conversely, this dystopian system of ostracism and social pressure is designed to completely eliminate mobility—social, class or travel—for those who do not follow the government’s definition of a model citizen.

A common slogan in China is, “Whoever violates the rules somewhere shall be restricted everywhere.” Sure enough, through the end of 2018, more than 17 million flights and 5.5 million high-speed rail trips were denied to would-be travelers who found themselves on the SCS blacklist deemed as untrustworthy.

“Discredited” Chinese citizens face negatives that go far beyond financial and travel restrictions. The South China Morning Post pointed out the indignities—some big, some small—that are heaped upon the laolai (blacklisted). They’re shunned by relatives and business associates, forced to ride on special slow trains, banned from renting hotel rooms and, most bizarrely, forced to use a special ringtone that embarrasses them every time they receive a phone call in public (“Life as One of China’s 13 Million ‘Deadbeats,’” March 26, 2019).

According to Australia’s ABC News, another “naming and shaming” tool is an app running on WeChat that generates a map with a radar-style graphic overlay that “pings” every laolai around the user. The app is commonly known as the “Deadbeat Map” (Jan. 23, 2019).

War with different weapons

The autonomous region of Xinjiang in northwest China, with a population of 25 million people, just under half of whom are Turkic Uighur Muslims, presents a chilling case study of the social credit system on steroids.

“China’s version of the ‘war on terror,’” according to The Guardian, “depends less on drones and strikes by elite military units than facial recognition software and machine learning algorithms. Its targets are not foreigners but domestic minority populations who appear to threaten the Chinese Communist party’s authoritarian rule” (“China’s Hi-Tech War on Its Muslim Minority,” April 11, 2019).

In 2014, following years of political strife, the Xi administration declared a state of emergency in Xinjiang and launched the “Strike Hard Campaign,” turning the entire region into what many consider an open-air prison and a laboratory for using innovative technologies to control people.

Almost overnight the Xinjiang security industry mushroomed from a handful of private firms to approximately 1,400 companies. The province serves, according to Foreign Policy, “as a testing ground for new technologies of surveillance that might render this process cheaper and more efficient for the state” (“U.S. Firms Are Helping Build China’s Orwellian State,” March 19, 2019).

Watching, filtering, arresting

According to Human Rights Watch, a coercive program known as “Physicals for All” enabled authorities to amass a vast collection of biometric data, including DNA samples, images of irises and even voice samples from all residents aged 12 to 65. High-definition facial signatures were created by scanning every individual from a variety of different angles as they made numerous facial expressions.

All Uighurs are required to install “nanny apps” that monitor everything they say, read and write, as well as everyone they connect with. That smartphone data is instantly cross-examined for suspect patterns by the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) that aggregates, in real time, all archived details and data vacuumed up from the unrelenting video surveillance, biometric checkpoints and electronic devices.

While constantly “learning” from the behaviors of the Uighurs it watches, the IJOP flags “micro-clue” transgressions ranging from religious speech, prayer or instruction of children to more mundane items like not socializing with neighbors, using more electricity than “normal,” showing a lack of fervor in using Mandarin or failure to attend nationalistic flag-raising ceremonies.

The information gathered by all of these tools analyzed by increasingly powerful AI and data processing means absolute control and little freedom. Any attempt by Uighurs to enter public institutions such as hospitals, banks, parks or shopping centers, or to cross beyond the boundaries of their local police precinct, immediately triggers the IJOP to alert police.

The intrusion into daily life is so all-encompassing that, New York Times opinion writer James Millward says, “when Uighurs buy a kitchen knife, their ID data is etched on the blade as a QR code” (“What It’s Like to Live in a Surveillance State,” Feb. 3, 2018).

Coercively shaping behavior

“Because of the crackdown,” The Guardian says, “officials have seen a profound diminishment of Islamic belief and political resistance in Uighur social life. They’re proud of the fervour with which Uighurs are learning the ‘common language’ of the country, abandoning Islamic holy days and embracing Han cultural values. From their perspective, the implementation of the new security systems has been a monumental success.”

Fear of the surveillance state—as up to 2 million Uighurs have been placed in camps—has become a force multiplier in Xinjiang since the people know they have no privacy rights. Uighurs have “adapted their behaviour, and slowly even their thoughts, to the system” (April 11, 2019).

The silk road of surveillance capitalism

China is striving to become an artificial intelligence powerhouse by 2030. It is now pushing its surveillance technology to like-minded governments around the world in what Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, calls “Christmas for repressive regimes” (quoted by CBC Radio, Nov. 30, 2018).

A 2018 report from Freedom House accused China of remaking “the world in its techno-dystopian image.” The Wall Street Journal noted that “dictators from Caracas to Pyongyang will seek to exploit the enormous potential for political misuse inherent in the emerging technologies, just as they have over the decades with radio, television and the internet itself” (“The Autocrat’s New Tool Kit,” March 15, 2019).

As more of the world’s critical telecommunications infrastructure is built by China, it is leveraging its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to spread this sophisticated technology. Because 60 percent of the world’s Muslim-majority nations have signed up to be part of China’s BRI, there is “unlimited market potential” for the type of surveillance technology emerging from Xinjiang.

Selling security

In 2018 the Chinese tech firm CloudWalk finalized an agreement with the virtually bankrupt government of Zimbabwe to build a national mass facial recognition program in order to address “social security issues.”

But China and its surveillance technology clients are only the beginning. Other companies and nations are developing and employing sophisticated methods of identifying and tracking individuals. Nightmare scenarios are becoming more real by the day.The Egyptian government plans to relocate from Cairo later this year to a new capital that will have, according to officials, “cameras and sensors everywhere,” with “a command center to control the entire city” (“The Autocrat’s New Tool Kit,” The Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2019).

Pakistan has plans for “smart cities,” featuring extensive surveillance technology built directly into the infrastructure. Officials in Kenya and Argentina are also exploring purchases of advanced Chinese AI and facial recognition systems.

Meanwhile Russia is ahead of the pack, with Moscow already boasting of 5,000 cameras installed with facial recognition technology that can rapidly access photos from passport databases, police files and social media.

But China and its surveillance technology clients are only the beginning. Other companies and nations are developing and employing sophisticated methods of identifying and tracking individuals. Nightmare scenarios are becoming more real by the day.

End-time political police state prophesied

Bible prophecy reveals a future time, before Jesus Christ returns to this war-torn earth, when a great superpower will rise in Europe. It will be a revival of the Roman Empire, and it will be a political, military and economic marvel that will undoubtedly have all the modern technological wizardry to command unquestioned loyalty and worship of both the system and leaders (Revelation 13:7-8).

The Bible likens it to a ferocious beast that will inspire a fearful dread. Many will wonder, “Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?” (verse 4). Authorities will wield vast economic power, with control over who is allowed to buy or sell (verses 15-18).

But, like all human governments, it is bound to fail! It will make war with the returning Jesus Christ and be utterly defeated.

Christ will then establish His government, one that will not need biometrics, a social credit system or the surveillance apparatus of a police state. There will be no fear of it being overthrown or losing power (Daniel 2:44; 7:13-14; Revelation 11:15).

Humanly devised computer algorithms and facial recognition will not determine trustworthiness in the future government of God. He will look upon the heart (1 Samuel 16:7; Acts 13:22) and judge with justice and mercy (Isaiah 16:5). God desires for all to be saved, and He will enter the names of the righteous into the Book of Life (Revelation 21:27).

When Christ returns, He will show the way of righteous government by example (Isaiah 2:2-4; Psalm 119:165). The prophet Isaiah provides an inspiring depiction of that future government of God: “Of His government and peace there will be no end” because He will “establish it with judgment and justice” (Isaiah 9:6-7).

Scripture also tells us, “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan” (Proverbs 29:2).

That is why the future King of Kings, Jesus Christ, was careful to instruct His disciples about the pitfalls of human governance: “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them” (Mark 10:42, New Living Translation).

The rulers of that day—like many today—found the desire to dominate, manipulate and control their subjects to be irresistible. That is why the Bible tells us, “Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146:3).

Thankfully, there is a righteous government coming! Until that day, put your faith in God.

Study more about the Bible’s warnings for the end time by downloading our free booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm. Read more about the utopian government of God that will follow in our booklet The Mystery of the Kingdom.

About the Author

Neal Hogberg

Neal Hogberg is a member of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and attends the Dallas, Texas, congregation.

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