China is building a huge digital surveillance system. The state collects massive amounts of data from willing citizens: the benefits are practical, and people who play by the rules are rewarded.
Critics call it “the most ambitious Orwellian project in human history.” China’s digital surveillance system involves massive amounts of data being gathered by the state. In the so-called “brain” of Shanghai, for example, authorities have an eye on everything. On huge screens, they can switch to any of the approximately one million cameras, to find out who’s falling asleep behind the wheel, or littering, or not following Coronavirus regulations. “We want people to feel good here, to feel that the city is very safe,” says Sheng Dandan, who helped design the “brain.” Surveys suggest that most Chinese are inclined to see benefits as opposed to risks: if algorithms can identify every citizen by their face, speech and even the way they walk, those breaking the law or behaving badly will have no chance. It’s incredibly convenient: a smartphone can be used to accomplish just about any task, and playing by the rules leads to online discounts thanks to a social rating system.
That’s what makes Big Data so attractive, and not just in China. But where does the required data come from? Who owns it, and who is allowed to use it? The choice facing the Western world is whether to engage with such technology at the expense of social values, or ignore it, allowing others around the world to set the rules.