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Is this app going to tell the government exactly what you’re doing at all times?
This is potentially terrifying.
If you lived in the region of Xinjiang, China, your day-to-day life is probably much different than it would be if you resided in the U.S. or Europe.
As journalist Megha Rajagopalan explained Sunday during a SXSW panel titled, “The Dark Side of Tech: Surveillance and Propaganda,” you’d wake up for your day and head to work. During your commute, you’d invariably come across a checkpoint. You’d get out of the car while Chinese officials searched it.
If you’re a Uighar Muslim, a minority ethnic group that lives in the western part of the country and that’s been targeted for what the Chinese call re-education camps, you’d be forced into a separate line where you’d have to hand over your phone. Officials would plug it into a device or simply scroll through your phone, searching perhaps for photographs of “pretty mosques” or Arab pop songs.
If, on your drive into work, you need to stop for gas, you’d have to show your identification and go through a facial recognition scan. If you dropped your child off at an elementary school, they might enter a building surrounded by barbed wire, where it looks more like a war zone than a place of early education.
If this sounds extreme, the panel said, you’re right. But it’s also a reality in China where the government is taking action to take its citizens’ data and use it for controversial purposes.
“This doesn’t consider human rights or privacy,” said Alex Gladstein, the chief strategy officer of the Human Rights Foundation. “[The network] is built with one thing in mind: to take your data and do whatever they want with it.”
As Rajagopalan—who writes for BuzzFeed—explained, those who live in the U.S. or Europe probably know that telecommunications companies or social media companies like Facebook are selling their customers’ data. But those customers probably don’t think about it on a daily basis.
In China, though, that kind of data collection—that kind of intrusion—is felt, especially if you’re a Uighar Muslim who has been targeted by the Communist government and who might be one of the reported hundreds of thousands who are forced into internment camps.
“It’s fueled the government’s ability to find people, track them, and prevent them from leaving their own towns and regions and to put them away in these [interment] camps,” Rajagopalan said.
Gladstein pointed to the WeChat app as an example of how China is collecting data. As he said, “you can do everything imaginable” on WeChat—everything from making social plans with friends to taking out a loan, from inputting your medical information to using it as a search engine—and that gives him a chilling thought.
“What,” he asked, “if the government was using that information to monitor you and shape your behavior?”
Unlike the U.S.’s technology architecture, which Gladstein said was “checkered and messy” but which also has mechanisms for citizens to demand privacy, the Chinese model is non-transparent and doesn’t necessarily care about human rights. The worry, the SXSW panel said, was that the Chinese influence and the way they build technology and collect data has spread to parts of Africa and Latin America.
“China is a fairly new player [in building surveillance equipment], but it’s ambitious,” said Melissa Chan, a journalist for the Global Reporting Centre.
Before the panel concluded, Gladstein asked whether the piece of technology that lives in your pocket or in your hand is a tool of surveillance or a tool of liberation. Increasingly, in various countries around the globe, it’s more the former than the latter. And eventually, it could affect everybody in the world.
Josh Katzowitz is a staff writer at the Daily Dot specializing in YouTube and boxing. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. A longtime sports writer, he's covered the NFL for CBSSports.com and boxing for Forbes. His work has been noted twice in the Best American Sports Writing book series.