Chinese style surveillance has come to the Americas. Tech firm ZTE is making inroads in selling surveillance tech to localities throughout South America. ZTE is a Chinese tech company that makes phones, surveillance cameras, and other devices, and has been accused of leaving a “backdoor” that enables the Chinese government to effectively spy on users. The firm was banned from importing US software and parts, but the ban was lifted last July, and ZTE paid a hefty fine. In bringing ZTE’s surveillance tech online, governments from Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Uruguay claim that citizen safety is their foremost concern.
The US is rightfully wary of ZTE and the kind of surveillance tech it’s selling to our southern neighbours. The concern is not just with those governments who employ the software having access to the collected data, but with ZTE holding that information as well. The Chinese social credit system relies on tech companies collecting data and funnelling it to the government where the information is parsed and individuals’ behaviour is recorded. Could the beginnings of social credit systems be underway in South America?
In Venezuela, a smart-card ID “transmits data about cardholders to servers supplied by ZTE and is increasingly linked by the government to subsidized food, health and other social programs.” In Ecuador and Uruguay, thousands of government-controlled surveillance cameras are already online. The US also has a lot of cameras on the streets, but as anyone who watches Law & Order can tell you, they’re not all linked to some centralized database, and half the time they’re not even working.
Feelings of dread accompany reports of China’s social credit system, where personal misdeeds are logged, recorded, and penalized. The system goes beyond western-style credit checks, expanding “that idea to all aspects of life, judging citizens’ behaviour and trustworthiness. Caught jaywalking, don’t pay a court bill, play your music too loud on the train — you could lose certain rights, such as booking a flight or train ticket,” per Wired. The social credit system is currently in beta, but willfully launch in 2020. Already, there have been reports of people being hindered from free travel because of their low social credit score.
The latest South American deal, three years in the works, is the installing of cameras and the implementation of a surveillance contract in Argentina’s crime-ridden northern province Jujuy. According to Reuters, “Security Minister Ekel Meyer said in an interview in San Salvador de Jujuy that residents accepted the watchful eye of the security cameras in exchange for safer streets.” Additionally, “a Chinese official in Buenos Aires [said] the Jujuy project could help China expand its tech footprint in the country, by encouraging other cities to adopt similar technology.” Both of these things are cause for concern.
When citizens give up freedom for safety, they are likely to get neither. Introducing facial recognition software to a surveillance system does more than identify those individuals who are caught on camera committing crimes, it tracks everyone. This is how so many really bad ideas are sold to the public. We’re meant to believe that if we allow ourselves to be tracked, our movements, actions, behaviours, and life choices to be monitored, we will all be better off. A common refrain is that only those who have something to hide, criminals, scoundrels, bad actors, should worry. But what about the rest of us? If we each dig into our personal lives, how good are we really? How much of what we do, that we take for granted, would get us into trouble in a social credit system?
This tracking is not only on an individual level, but on a group level. One of the most successful uses of facial recognition software is in China’s Xinjiang province, where the ethnic and religious minority of Uighurs are tracked as they go about their daily lives. As reported by Paul Mozur for podcast The Daily, many Uighurs are scared to attend worship services because they don’t know how the information of their attendance will be used.
Americans are happy to leave our permanent records behind with formal education, but the promise of this kind of tracking tech is that no bad action, unpaid bill, missed stoplight, or breach of the peace will stay in the past. It makes me think through my own actions and misdeeds, ones that I’ve long since shelved with heaps of other discarded memories, and wonder what of these things would stop my freedom of movement under a widely implemented, Chinese style social credit system. Prohibitively low credit scores can cause enough damage, but what about actually being penalized for non-debt-related infractions?
How I would fare under a social credit system. Would I be able to travel? Take out loans? Get jobs? While the algorithm is both a secret and not entirely uniform, as the system has been rolled out by private companies under the auspices of the government, I decided to take a look at some of the behaviours than can earn a citizen negative social credit, and see where I’d fare. The answer is probably not so great. But are my behaviours really fodder for public shunning?
I had no illusions that I would do well. Because we don’t entirely know what is being tracked, or the effect of those violations, I went with simply those things that I’d done in public that would have been caught on one of these infinite cameras, or that could be accessed by any entity with my social security number.
We could start with my checking account. There’s $17 in it right now. That doesn’t bode well for my financial solvency. I can’t possibly be a productive, consuming member of society with $17 in my bank account. In addition to that, most of my credit is expended, so if there were a crisis of some kind, I’d have to borrow from someone else, or become a burden on “the system.” I don’t own anything. At one point I owned a fridge, but when the time came to move, I couldn’t get the fridge out, so I don’t own that anymore. Which brings me to the fact that I’ve lived in five different apartments since 2000, all rentals, and haven’t paid my rent exactly on time more than once or twice. There were a few rounds in housing court during grad school. This speaks to further instability.
This is only going by the numbers, because the fact that I feel fine about my stats would have no bearing on my social credit score. I pay all of my bills very close to on time. I figure if bills were meant to be paid early, the due date would be earlier. Bills are due on a certain day for a reason, no?
I jaywalk. I know, I know, but I do it anyway, and I’m gonna keep doing it. The best jaywalking is New York jaywalking, where masses of pedestrians all at once decide waiting for the walk sign is for noobs and tourists and we altogether step into crosstown traffic and cross it. On my bike, I rarely wear a helmet. This irks my mother to no end, but I really prefer my hat. For a while, I made a past time of angry walking from midtown to Canal Street. It wasn’t intentional, necessarily, I was just walking, while angry. Any cameras that caught me yelling “move” audibly but under my breath at clumps of clueless, confused, slow-walking tourists would surely have debited my permanent record accordingly.
I don’t always separate every piece of garbage from every other piece of garbage. Mostly I forget to rinse the cat food cans; that can’t be good. In transit, I sometimes hold the subways doors open a few seconds after they want to close to give old people and people with kids extra time to board. I give spare change to the homeless instead of reporting their location to the proper authorities. I know these social niceties would cost me dearly. The number of infractions each of us is guilty of are countless. If tech increases the authorities’ ability to punish us for it, those punishments should decrease, not increase, in severity.
What would really hamper my movements are all the protests I’ve participated in. Going back to the early 2000’s I marched for gay rights, to free Mumia Abu Jamal, and against the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. In 2003, I marched against the Iraq War, with the New York local transit workers’ union, and Jerry Springer. Together we shut down the 59th Street Bridge and 2nd Avenue, all to make an anti-war point. I’ve written and produced anti-government plays and encouraged other writers to do the same. I’ve written a ton of articles about how everything is bats and we need to maintain and defend our rights, even at the cost of safety. Surely, under a government social credit system that valued safety more than rights, my rights to speak against that very concept would be hindered, along with my freedom to travel freely.
China’s interest in promoting these kinds of surveillance solutions is both about the sale, and about the ideological infiltration. So far, the tech is easy to buy, easy to use, and easy to convince populations to subject themselves to. It becomes that much easier for citizens to forget that their rights are not to be given away. The rights we hold, our inalienable, natural rights, belong to us. Safety is not a right, freedom from surveillance is. The government does not have the right to dock us points because it disapproves of our behaviour, and we need to fight against it by saying “no” at every conceivable opportunity. It doesn’t matter if you think you have nothing to hide, the fact of the matter is, those things that you think are perfectly innocent are just as likely to make you guilty as anything else.
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