China's Surveillance State Should Scare Everyone


The country is perfecting a vast network of digital espionage as a means of social control—with implications for democracies worldwide.


China is perfecting a vast network of digital espionage as a means of social control—with implications for democracies worldwide. Imagine a society in which you are rated by the government on your trustworthiness. Your “citizen score” follows you wherever you go.

A high score allows you access to faster internet service or a fast-tracked visa to Europe. If you make political posts online without a permit, or question or contradict the government’s official narrative on current events, however, your score decreases. To calculate the score, private companies working with your government constantly trawl through vast amounts of your social media and online shopping data.

The government gathers an enormous collection of information through the video cameras placed on your street and all over your city. If you commit a crime—or simply jaywalk—facial recognition algorithms will match video footage of your face to your photo in a national ID database. It won’t be long before the police show up at your door.

The country is racing to become the first to implement a pervasive system of algorithmic surveillance. Harnessing advances in artificial intelligence and data mining and storage to construct detailed profiles on all citizens, China’s communist party-state is developing a “citizen score” to incentivize “good” behavior.

This ambitious project has so far been mostly confined to a content-filtering Great Firewall, which prohibits foreign internet sites including Google, Facebook, and The New York Times. According to Freedom House, China’s level of internet freedom is already the worst on the planet. Now, the Communist Party of China is finally building the extensive, multilevel data-gathering system it has dreamed of for decades.