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Surveillance in China is Seeping into the City Streets

Surveillance in China

Each week brings more and more news from China about all the novel (and sometimes quite unnerving) ways of censorship and surveillance.

by Eugene Michaels

We have covered a wide variety of methods so far, but there seems to be a never-ending stream of innovation.

The censorship of the Chinese internet is still ruling the search results and the front pages of Western press-media. This issue is as well known as the many ways of fighting it. From the proxy servers to VPNs, they help netizens in China access the free world wide web.

However, how does one fight the more prominent surveillance off-line? Sure, you can turn on NordVPN and use Facebook, but you cannot put a VPN-powered shield on your head to protect your thoughts if the newly emerged concept of “mind reading helmets” is developed any further. There is no way of encrypting your subconscious, at least not for now.

Thus, let’s now explore two prominent examples of the Chinese surveillance off-line, compared to which climbing over the Great Firewall will seem as merely stepping over a grass edging.

Facial-recognition Cameras and Sunglasses

For the past few years, Chinese engineers and scientists have been perfecting the technology needed for the CCTV cameras that can recognize a person’s face within a matter of seconds. The country already has around 200 million surveillance cameras scattered all throughout the city streets, but for the most part, they are just that – cameras transmitting video material to the policemen in the stations, who process the data. But now, some of these cameras can scan through masses of people in the streets and find a wanted person in a second. The police monitoring the CCTV immediately obtain the person’s name and ID number, shown right next to their face. There is nowhere to hide – lousy lighting or weird angles do not exist for this technology.

Furthermore, the policemen themselves are getting equipped with smaller versions of the facial-recognition cameras right in their sunglasses. The glasses can scan the crowds real-time and let the policeman pinpoint potential culprits. The images are also sent to a processor in the officer’s uniform for a later reviewing.

These facial-recognition technologies have helped the Chinese police force to capture around 2000 people in the past two years, so it all seems beneficial. However, the facial recognition which allows other people to see your ID number and full name, is also creepy, as some cities have begun posting the pictures and names of people, who jaywalk or have fines to pay, on large screens out in public.

It is a next level surveillance and public shaming in one. Also, do not forget that these new surveillance methods are directly connected to the social credit score. Thus, if you jaywalk in the street, the camera captures you; and then you get a text message about a fine and a deduction of your social credit score.

“Emotional Surveillance Technology”

Another example has recently spread through the Western media. Some factories and companies in China are reportedly requesting their workers to wear special helmets with embedded electromagnetic sensors, which wirelessly transmit the brainwave data to the central computers. Such sensors ought to monitor the workers’ emotions and mental state – sudden spikes in the brainwave readings could mean higher anger, sadness, or anxiety levels. According to these results, staff often experiencing negative emotions could be sent home or moved to do different tasks.

The idea of our bosses monitoring our state of mind does seem very unsettling. However, the technology’s efficiency is still questionable. The special helmets and the sensors should work as an electroencephalogram (EEG), which is widely used to detect brain seizures and sleep disorders in psychiatry. The EEG does provide a reading of the brain activity, but it does not give a clear picture of one’s emotional state. For that, the Chinese are using AI algorithms to scan the gathered data to indicate extreme fluctuations in the brainwave scan readings.

Even though the technology is not yet perfect, it is still a leap towards making the Orwellian Thought Police come to life.


Online, you can use various methods, such as VPN or proxies, to access blocked websites and services. In the streets, you can look decent and act in accordance with all the rules, even if you cannot change your face, at least your thoughts are safe. With the emotional surveillance technology, you cannot do anything, but enable a kill-switch for your mind (if only that were possible). As always, we can only wait and see how the censorship and surveillance develop in China and hope for the best. At least we have our ways to hide on the internet.

Topics: Surveillance in China, facial recognition in China

Last Updated on 2021/11/18

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