In China, Big Brother might get you be­fore you com­mit a crime

▶ Bei­jing wants to iden­tify sub­ver­sives be­fore they strike ▶ “What is more im­por­tant is to pre­dict the up­com­ing ac­tiv­i­ties”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents -

China’s ef­fort to flush out threats to sta­bil­ity is ex­pand­ing into an area that used to ex­ist only in dystopian sci-fi: pre-crime. The Com­mu­nist Party has di­rected one of the coun­try’s largest state-run de­fense con­trac­tors, China Elec­tron­ics Tech­nol­ogy Group, to de­velop soft­ware to col­late data on jobs, hob­bies, con­sump­tion habits, and other be­hav­ior of or­di­nary cit­i­zens to pre­dict ter­ror­ist acts be­fore they oc­cur. “It’s very cru­cial to ex­am­ine the cause af­ter an act of ter­ror,” Wu Man­qing, the chief en­gi­neer for the mil­i­tary con­trac­tor, told re­porters at a con­fer­ence in De­cem­ber. “But what is more im­por­tant is to pre­dict the up­com­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.”

The pro­gram is un­prece­dented be­cause there are no safe­guards from pri­vacy pro­tec­tion laws and min­i­mal push­back from civil lib­erty ad­vo­cates and com­pa­nies, says Lok­man Tsui, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the School of Jour­nal­ism and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong, who has ad­vised Google on free­dom of ex­pres­sion and the In­ter­net. The pro­ject also takes ad­van­tage of an ex­ist­ing vast net­work of neigh­bor­hood in­for­mants as­signed by the Com­mu­nist Party to mon­i­tor ev­ery­thing from fam­ily plan­ning vi­o­la­tions to un­ortho­dox be­hav­ior. A draft cy­ber­se­cu­rity law un­veiled in July grants the govern­ment al­most un­bri­dled ac­cess to user data in the name of na­tional se­cu­rity. “If nei­ther le­gal re­stric­tions nor un­fet­tered political de­bate about Big Brother sur­veil­lance is a fac­tor for a regime, then there are many dif­fer­ent sorts of data that could be col­lated and cross-ref­er­enced to help iden­tify pos­si­ble ter­ror­ists or sub­ver­sives,” says Paul Pil­lar, a non­res­i­dent fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

Build­ing a crys­tal ball to pre­dict and pre­vent ter­ror at­tacks is the ul­ti­mate goal of crime fight­ers the world over. But, so far, more data has just meant more noise, se­cu­rity ex­perts say. “There are not enough ex­am­ples of ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity to model what it looks like in data, and that’s true no mat­ter how much data you have,” says Jim Harper, a se­nior fel­low at the Cato In­sti­tute. “You need yeast to make bread. You can’t make up for a lack of yeast by adding more flour.”

China was a sur­veil­lance state long be­fore Ed­ward Snow­den clued Amer­i­cans in to the ex­tent of do­mes­tic spy­ing. Since the Mao era, the govern­ment has kept a se­cret file, called a dang’an, on al­most ev­ery­one. Dang’an con­tain school re­ports, health records, work per­mits, per­son­al­ity as­sess­ments, and other in­for­ma­tion that might be con­sid­ered con­fi­den­tial and pri­vate in other coun­tries. The con­tents of the dang’an can de­ter­mine whether a ci­ti­zen is el­i­gi­ble for a pro­mo­tion or can se­cure a cov­eted ur­ban res­i­dency per­mit. The govern­ment re­vealed last year that it was also build­ing a na­tion­wide data­base that would score cit­i­zens on their trust­wor­thi­ness.

New an­titer­ror laws that went into ef­fect on Jan. 1 al­low au­thor­i­ties to gain ac­cess to bank ac­counts, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, and a na­tional net­work of sur­veil­lance cam­eras called Skynet. Com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Baidu, China’s lead­ing search en­gine; Ten­cent, op­er­a­tor of the pop­u­lar so­cial mes­sag­ing

app Wechat; and Sina, which con­trols the Weibo mi­croblog­ging site, al­ready co­op­er­ate with of­fi­cial re­quests for in­for­ma­tion, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the U.S. Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice. A Baidu spokesman says the com­pany wasn’t in­volved in the new an­titer­ror ini­tia­tive. Ten­cent and Sina’s Weibo didn’t re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

China Elec­tron­ics Tech­nol­ogy, which got the an­titer­ror­ism job in Oc­to­ber 2014, had op­er­at­ing rev­enue of 164 bil­lion yuan ($25 bil­lion) in 2015. Apart from sup­ply­ing the Chi­nese mil­i­tary with radar and elec­tronic warfare sys­tems, the com­pany has played a lead­ing role in the coun­try’s am­bi­tious space pro­gram.

Much of the pro­ject is shrouded in se­crecy. The Min­istry of State Se­cu­rity, which over­sees coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence and political se­cu­rity, doesn’t even have its own web­site, let alone an­swer phone calls. Only Wu, the en­gi­neer at China Elec­tron­ics Tech­nol­ogy, would speak on the record. He hinted at the scope of the data col­lec­tion ef­fort when he said the soft­ware would be able to draw por­traits of sus­pects by cross-ref­er­enc­ing in­for­ma­tion from bank ac­counts, jobs, hob­bies, con­sump­tion pat­terns, and footage from sur­veil­lance cam­eras.

The pro­gram would flag un­usual be­hav­ior, such as a res­i­dent of a poor vil­lage who sud­denly has a lot of money in her bank ac­count or some­one with no over­seas rel­a­tives who makes fre­quent calls to for­eign­ers. Ac­cord­ing to Wu, th­ese could be in­di­ca­tors that a per­son is a ter­ror­ist. “We don’t call it a big data plat­form,” he said, “but a united in­for­ma­tion en­vi­ron­ment.” In China, once a sus­pect is tar­geted, po­lice can freeze bank ac­counts and com­pel com­pa­nies to hand over records of his com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

An­other China Elec­tron­ics Tech­nol­ogy ex­ec­u­tive, who re­quested anonymity be­cause he isn’t au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly, says the an­titer­ror­ism soft­ware would first be tested in ter­ri­to­ries where Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties are strug­gling to stamp out some­times vi­o­lent op­po­si­tion to Com­mu­nist rule by eth­nic mi­nori­ties. He says the pi­lot had a bet­ter chance of suc­cess than a na­tion­wide pro­gram, be­cause it’s fo­cused on the 22 mil­lion res­i­dents of the sparsely pop­u­lated Xin­jiang ter­ri­tory in China’s northwest and the 3 mil­lion in moun­tain­ous Ti­bet.

Brook­ings’s Pil­lar is skep­ti­cal. “No sys­tem of sur­veil­lance and ex­ploita­tion of in­tel­li­gence can stop ev­ery­thing,” he says. But Tsui, the Hong Kong pro­fes­sor, says if any­one has a chance of com­ing up with a work­able high-tech Big Brother, it’s the Chi­nese. The lack of pri­vacy pro­tec­tions means that China’s data snif­fers are more prac­ticed than those in the West. “The peo­ple who are good at this are good be­cause they have ac­cess to a lot of data,” he says. “They can ex­per­i­ment with all kinds of stuff.” - Shai Oster

“We don’t call it a big data plat­form but a united in­for­ma­tion en­vi­ron­ment.” �Wu Man­qing, China Elec­tron­ics Tech­nol­ogy

The bot­tom line A top Chi­nese mil­i­tary con­trac­tor is build­ing a data an­a­lyt­ics plat­form to help au­thor­i­ties iden­tify ter­ror­ists be­fore they strike.

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