As technology advances, making people’s lives easier, so does the deterioration of civil liberties and basic human rights. A clear example are the smart cities in China, with technologies capable of even alerting when someone falls asleep at the car wheel, the state apparatus has penetrated every aspect of the private lives of its inhabitants.
What are smart cities?
Although the term appeared at the beginning of 2000, in 2008 it was IBM who coined it as a marketing initiative, arguing that the growing global trend towards urbanization created the need for technological solutions to improve the livability and management of urban spaces.
In other words, the smart cities approach was to use technology to improve the quality of life in urban areas whose population density inevitably brought about traffic and transportation problems, pollution and high energy consumption.
With a ‘digitization’ of all the information that was traditionally collected manually or through public or private agencies and which takes months or years to process, smart cities can collect and intermingle in real time all this information in a single database to optimize the functioning of the city and provide immediate solutions.
What are the benefits of a smart city?
According to a report released by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, smart cities feature a wide range of automated technologies in several fields.
From smart street lights that can be turned on or off based on the intensity of natural light, to homes that feature an automatic energy system that saves electricity or gas consumption.
Or intelligent systems that can make users pay dynamic prices based on their electricity consumption; buildings with fully automatic systems for the entry and exit of residents, lightening and emergency mechanisms such as fire alarms or warnings, as well as systems capable of recycling energy.
In the area of one of the scarcest resources on the planet, they created systems that measure water consumption, detect and control leaks, perform intelligent irrigation, and can control water quality or detect contaminants.
And in security, the most controversial of all, smart cities can optimize emergency response, map crime in real time to catch a suspect, or prevent crime with predictive surveillance based on the behavior of criminals.
With facial recognition cameras, patent recognition, early warning systems, and ‘crowd management’, the state apparatus has all the tools to effectively control the population.
What smart technology consists of
The main components of the technology embedded in smart cities are facial recognition cameras, voice recognition applications, storage clouds, artificial intelligence programs embedded in cameras and sensors, and 5G networks.
All these elements are interconnected to a main system where all the information is processed, translated and interpreted, giving the possibility to forecast changes or warn of emergencies.
Storage clouds serve mainly to store data collected by cameras, sensors and other applications for the same purpose.
Although initially the systems were created at the municipal level, with China’s centralized type of government, the networks have expanded to the national level.
The case of China
China is one of the pioneers of smart cities. It currently has more than 700 smart cities and hundreds more are in the process of incorporating the technology.
A Bloomberg report from October 2021, claims that the Chinese regime allocated 800 billion dollars to produce autonomous electric vehicles, high-speed trains, 5G networks and smart grids (cloud storage and facial recognition cameras).
Among the most advanced or technology-embedded smart cities are Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Hangzhou.
Speaking of practical life in these cities, people can shop simply by looking at a camera that identifies the person, while some companies have developed artificial intelligence cameras that can ‘read the brainwaves’ of their employees and predict when they are tired and should get up to stretch their bodies.
Other reports claim that the technology is able to warn when a driver is drowsy and send a message to call his or her attention.
Which Chinese companies are producing this technology?
Huawei, Hikvision and Dahua are the leading manufacturers of facial recognition cameras. In addition, Huawei was the first to launch a 5G network in China.
SenseTime, Megvii and Yitu are artificial intelligence companies whose software is embedded in cameras and sensors to detect and recognize people, car patents, etc.
Alibaba is a major storage cloud provider.
During the pandemic, SenseTime developed the ability to read people’s temperature via cameras that the Chinese regime installed in subways to supposedly monitor contagions, send someone to quarantine, etc.
China has at least 600 million facial recognition cameras on its territory, and is very close to having at least 1 camera every two inhabitants (700 million cameras for the 1400 million inhabitants).
All these companies have been sanctioned by the US government, which accuses them of providing the CCP with technology to repress political dissidents or ethnic minorities.
According to the South China Morning Post, researchers discovered software code in Dahua cameras that appeared to allow ethnic profiling of China’s Uyghur minority using artificial intelligence.
The CCP is accused of persecuting, imprisoning, torturing and attempting to make Uyghurs disappear in Xinjiang province. In 2021, the Trump administration designated the persecution of Uyghurs by the Chinese Communist regime as a genocide.
A better quality of life or a super surveillance state
While smart cities are presented as the solution to the growing demands and common problems of urban life, analysts claim that the reason the CCP seeks to digitize cities is to be able to control the population and eliminate its political enemies, ethnic minorities or religious groups it persecutes.
The main problem with the use of this technology in China lies in the lack of a legal framework to protect the Chinese from both, the private sector and the state apparatus.
The CCP forces companies through legislation to share their customers’ biometric data and companies are not even required to disclose that their data was sent to the government.
While the Chinese communist regime has designated some regulations to prohibit companies from arbitrarily collecting Chinese people’s biometric data, there is no certainty that these regulations are actually being enforced, especially knowing that the government can access the massive personal data stored of its inhabitants at any time.
Let’s look at some examples of the implementation of this technology to get a clearer picture.
Several media reports point out that facial recognition cameras are used to embarrass pedestrians crossing a red light, or walking in a non-pedestrian area, by posting their photo and/or data on public road screens.
During the pandemic, the Chinese regime even sent drones with facial recognition cameras to monitor people who went out of their residences.
With every minor violation, Chinese people lose points in the social credit system which, in turn, prevents them from traveling, shopping or even accessing education, not to mention if someone decides to criticize the regime on social networks which are constantly monitored.
Another example that generated controversy was in the city of Dongguan, which installed facial recognition cameras in public toilets, supposedly to prevent people from ‘stealing’ toilet paper.
The cameras were installed in the toilet paper dispensers and if by its standards it considered that the person had already taken out enough toilet paper, it would not dispense any more.
Users complained that in times of need, they had no toilet paper.
In October 2020, Chinese state media reported that there were Chinese websites selling the images, taken by the facial recognition cameras, at the incredible price of 0.8 cents. Other websites even offered the identity documents, images and personal information, which could be easily used in fake identity frauds to make purchases or perform any illegal action.
In fact, a survey by a Chinese media outlet, Beijing News Think Tank, found that 96 percent of Chinese are concerned about their biometric data being leaked while 90 percent oppose companies collecting it.
Many Chinese said in the survey that they do not necessarily approve of the intrusion of technology into their private lives, but simply living in these cities, they have no choice but to accept it.
However, since the survey is conducted by an organization in China, there was no question asking whether they agree with the government accessing their biometric data, as this could end in some kind of sanction.
The CCP exports its technology abroad
Smart cities have not only become a national policy, but the Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of Xi Jinping, in order to increase the size of companies dedicated to this field, seeks to expand the use of technology in other countries through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Analysts say that by exporting smart city technology, the CCP seeks to become the world’s largest economy and eventually dominate the world stage and displace the United States.
There is little public information on the acquisition of Chinese technology by other countries, but as of January 2020, 398 cases have been identified where smart city technology was exported by 34 different Chinese companies.
It is usually emerging countries that acquire Chinese technology that is normally cheaper but also less effective than its main competitor and current leader in the area, the United States.
Huawei is producing 5G networks with artificial intelligence in more than 65 countries according to a PBS report.
Is there a real problem with Chinese technology or is it just America’s rivalry with communism?
It is not illogical to think that U.S. administrations, whether Democrat or Republican, would want to put a brake on the growth of a China ruled by a communist regime, as communism has been the eternal enemy of the free world led by the United States.
There are specific cases in which Chinese technology has been used by authoritarian governments to track down and repress peaceful dissidents, to spy on social networks, prevent people from organizing to demonstrate, etc.
Some of these examples include Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Ethiopia.
During the administration of former President Donald Trump, many of these Chinese companies were sanctioned after it was discovered that they collected data from their users and stored it abroad, on their servers in China, where CCP intelligence agencies can access it at will.
In January 2021, former U.S. counterintelligence director William Evanina made shocking statements about how Chinese companies providing services in the U.S. collected Americans’ DNA.
Evanina, who has a long career with the FBI, said that BGI, one of the world’s largest Chinese biotech firms, in charge of testing people in New York, Washington DC and California for COVID-19, and that through the testing, the company collected people’s biometric data.
Analysts say that the ultimate goal of the CCP is to create a biometric database which will allow them to know what medical treatments or drugs to develop, in order to finally dominate the area of health worldwide.
This is an example of how the Chinese Communist Party uses its technology to advance in its ambition of world dominance with complete disregard of how its actions actually undermine its reputation in the eyes of Western societies.
The capacity of governments to use this smart technology for the good of the people, without stepping over their rights and freedoms, will finally determine the use of smart technology to real benefit life in cities.
In a society where the state administers the city and officials position themselves as ‘public servants’, thus considering the risks and impact of the use of technology, people can live in harmony with the responsible use of technology.
On the other hand, when governments become authoritarian, unable to listen to criticism of their performance and seek to censor people and eternalize themselves in power, technology becomes the executioner of those who are supposed to benefit from it.