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"Surveillance in China right now is like looking into a crystal ball and seeing what might happen in five years to everybody else. The people who know the details of China's program are either spying themselves, or risk harm if they talk about it."
So says Kate Krauss, a longtime AIDS activist from Philly, and director of the AIDS Policy Project. She gave a fascinating talk about China's digital ID surveillance system at the 30th annual Chaos Communications Congress in Hamburg, Germany. Krauss became interested in the Chinese ID cards because they contain information about HIV status. They also contain information like mental health reports and political views, in addition to basic biographical information such as where one lives and works. All of that data and more is immediately available to police officers, who swipe these ID cards at traffic stops and during field interrogations.
"People have said since the Snowden revelations that they feel as if they are living in science fiction, like 'Minority Report'," Krauss said. "But many people in China really are. A billion Chinese citizens have government-issued smart-cards, identification cards with a little radio antennae and a micro-controller in them. They're mandatory. You have to carry them with you at all times. And China has 500 street demonstrations every single day."
Krauss' talk provides a damning retort to people who say that dragnet surveillance isn't inherently abusive. When ubiquitous state spying and political repression meet, the consequences are truly dystopian—no matter where you live.
Apologists for the US surveillance state try to make it seem like they are the true patriots, who only want to ensure that people are safe from violence. When confronted with evidence that their dragnet spying didn't stop any terrorist attacks, the rulers of our surveillance regime tell us that the program could have prevented 9/11.
The goal of this dishonest, emotional manipulation is clear: To put opponents of dragnet surveillance on the side of terrorists, people who seek to do harm to civilian life. The spies, yanked out of the shadows to justify the unjustifiable, position themselves as misunderstood but humble heroes, working in the dark corners to ensure life and therefore the possibility of liberty and justice for all.
But as Edward Snowden reminds us and every single available historical example confirms, dragnet government surveillance is not about public safety. It is about maintaining and expanding economic and political power, and social control. In the Chinese system, there doesn't seem to be much denying of this simple fact, but here in the United States, which positions itself as the freest nation on earth, we are bombarded with a constant stream of propaganda to the contrary.
If we want to avoid heading down the road of mandatory, digital IDs for all residents, we'd better snap out of it. We aren't special snowflakes for whom the rules of politics and power do not apply. Our system can be corroded by powerful interests just like any other. To pretend otherwise is to guarantee a future wherein meaningful personal and political freedom is but a memory.
What is obvious to most Americans when they look at China's surveillance systems should translate into a critique of our own government, too. It doesn't matter who is conducting the surveillance, whether it's a democratic or republican regime. It doesn't matter if you trust the people in charge. Trust (or disinterest) in the US surveillance regime has delivered us into our current predicament, one in which the government routinely violates our privacy by spying on us without warrant or cause.
If invasive electronic surveillance is not targeted, specific, based off of a showing of wrongdoing, and approved by a judge, it's inherently abusive. That's true in China, it was true in East Germany, and it's true in the United States today.