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China leads in mass surveillance. Will the West follow?

James B. Rule, author of Privacy in Peril: How We are Sacrificing a Fundamental Right in Exchange for Security and Convenience is Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society at the University of California, Berkeley and a former fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He is also a winner of the C. Wright Mills Award. Privacy in Peril looks at the legal ways in which our private data is used by the government and private industry. In the article below Rule reflects on an article that claims that the average American is caught on film 200 times a day.

China is gearing up for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing—determined to ensure that no demonstrations, terrorist events or unruly crowds mar the bright face it intends to show the world. To that end, the Party leadership is mobilizing sophisticated technologies to keep track of potentially disruptive personalities. Relying on IBM and other western companies, the authorities are planning to monitor the movements of crowds by computer and to respond instantly to any hint of trouble.

China is already a world leader in electronic tracking of its people. In the southern city of Shenzhen, at least 20,000 police surveillance cameras have been deployed, relying on sophisticated software—again, financed by an American company– aimed at automatically recognizing individual police suspects and detecting “unusual activity”. These are in addition to some 180,000 indoor and outdoor closed-circuit television cameras already operated by business and government agencies.

Even more striking is Shenzhen’s allocation of high-tech identity cards to its people. The cards will contai9780195307832.jpgn powerful computer chips bearing a vast array of information on each resident—including, according to The New York Times, not just name and address but also “work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status and landlord’s phone number”. “Even personal reproductive history will be included,” the Times continues, “for enforcement of China’s controversial ‘one child’ policy. Plans are being studied to add credit histories, subway travel payments and small purchases charged to the card”.

Law-enforcement authorities all over the world will envy the capabilities thus conferred on Shenzhen’s police—above all, the ability to “read” instantly the life history and current circumstances of each card-holder. And further surveillance advances are not hard to anticipate. All Shenzhen police officers now carry GPS equipment enabling police headquarters to track their deployment about the city. It can’t be long before some visionary proposes to track citizens in this same way. Thus persons of interest to the police—or perhaps, all citizens—would be fitted with GPS devices that would make their movements and whereabouts instantly knowable to the authorities. Surely there would be enterprising global businesses eager to sell the technology for such a bold experiment.

But all this is taking place far away in China, you may say—under an authoritarian regime unrestricted by habeas corpus, the Bill of Rights or other constitutional guarantees of individual privacy and freedom. It could never happen here. Americans, and other citizens of liberal democracies, would not tolerate such rampant state monitoring of ordinary people’s lives.

Maybe so, maybe not. At the very least, there’s no missing the fact that the rest of the world is headed in precisely the same direction as China. The UK now has more than a million video surveillance cameras mounted in public places, with an estimated five hundred additional installations every day. These devices are becoming increasingly “smart”—able to “read” license plates or pick out faces of persons of interest without human intervention. They are already used to monitor sites thought to be terrorist targets. Details of the monitoring are not always disclosed, but it’s safe to assume that vehicles registered to suspected terrorists come in for very special attention in those zones.

In the United States, a recent Newsweek story estimates, the average American is caught on video tape some 200 times a day. Most of these shots probably occur in public places—crowded sidewalks, for example, or mass transit facilities. But some of the cameras focus on bathrooms and clothiers’ dressing rooms, where those monitored must normally have no idea that they are being watched.

Being watched in the dressing room is embarrassing—for most of us, infuriating. But for the quality of civic life and political freedom, other incremental changes in daily monitoring look a good deal more serious. Any American who hasn’t been asleep for the last few decades notices more and more points when one has to present identification to the authorities—boarding domestic air flights, obviously, or entering federal buildings. I was recently astonished to find myself required to provide “government-issued photo ID” simply to purchase a train ticket in Washington, D.C. for cash. The Bush administration’s proposed “Real ID” legislation is pushing states to create computer-readable driver’s licenses widely believed destined to become a national ID card system.

Once a national ID card system were established, whom would it be used to track? Wanted and missing persons, certainly. Suspected terrorists? Definitely. Illegal aliens, almost certainly. Convicted sex offenders? Perhaps. Persons seriously in arrears with their taxes or child support payments? Conceivably. Parking-ticket scofflaws? You never know!

And where would it be necessary to show the card—and thereby subject one’s self to the scrutiny of the relevant government agencies? Every time we open a bank account, or access an ATM machine? Whenever we get on a bus or a subway—or rent a car, or cross a toll bridge? Every time we check into a hotel or a hospital?

Would Americans ever accept such relentless monitoring—as Chinese populations appear to be accepting it today? If any government sought to take all these steps at once, probably not. But changes like these normally occur incrementally, as one government agency or another identifies new dangers or new opportunities to save public monies or curtail undesirable activities. Another major terrorist incident, a wave of anti-immigrant feeling—these and other quite plausible events could help push us to accept ever-more-stringent surveillance measures.

Where China is leading, then, the United States and other democracies could ultimately follow. American surveillance measures might be instated by duly-elected officials, and carried out under the rule of law. But to many of us, that would hardly make such developments more palatable.

The question is, where do we draw the line?

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