Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

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China is moving forward with Digital Authoritarianism through Covid 19

-- By ThomasLiu - 11 May 2022


The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic not only poses unprecedented hazards to global health and well-being, but it also raises severe concerns about data and privacy breaches. This is due to the extensive use of technological surveillance and tracking techniques to assist prevent the spread of the disease. Globally speaking, China stands out among pandemic-related surveillance countries, having marshaled the digital contact tracking and health surveillance capabilities at its disposal to drastically decrease the virus's. Drones, CCTV cameras, digital barcodes, and geolocation data on mobile apps have all contributed to the development of the country's comprehensive, rigorous and aggressive virus-tracking system. These are all forms of tech-enabled surveillance systems which are also often referred to as digital authoritarianism. Such surveillance system has aroused international outrage and condemnation of an authoritarian regime's use of invasive technologies in ways that could infringe on the right to privacy and data protection, as well as repressively impede other basic civil and human rights. Practically this digital authoritarianism is the use of technology by authoritarian governments to monitor, suppress, manipulate, censor, and provide services to their populace in order to retain and extend political power. In East and Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, many authoritarian governments employ technology to control their citizens and enhance their regimes. China and Russia, on the other hand, are the most advanced practitioners, with China heavily using a combination of technology exports, internal example-setting, and international involvement to expand its digital authoritarianism model and procedures.

Forms of tech-enabled surveillance

Individual identification, surveillance, and restriction online are the most evident manifestations of digital dictatorship. But this is only the start. Internet restriction is only one aspect of digital tyranny. Individual and mass surveillance employing cameras, facial recognition, drones, GPS monitoring, and other digital technology are used to assist totalitarian rule. It normalizes ongoing surveillance and deprives people of their right to privacy . Digital authoritarianism includes regulations that punish and prohibit critical speech on the internet and elsewhere, as well as state disinformation operations targeted at fooling populations. Digital authoritarianism also includes technology-enabled incentive and punishment systems, such as China's social credit system, that institutionalize data sharing between commercial technology companies and government agencies, allowing only compliant citizens to fully participate in society and the economy. Censorship and surveillance monitoring techniques are being pioneered by Chinese tech businesses. The government uses these technologies to track people and restrict them from using popular apps to access services and communicate. Unlike Western technology businesses, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) grants internet firms licenses and regulates all internet content, monitors and supervises Chinese internet platforms . Companies are required to invest in their own technology and people to censor material according to the CAC requirements, or face steep fines and license revocation. As a result of these vaguely specified guidelines, many platforms have erred on the side of harsh censorship.

Existing Technologies

Multiples points of Data Collection

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) collects bulk data on Chinese residents including online communication, travel logs, education and health records, facial scans, and bio data. The data is then aggregated and synthesized by AI algorithms, which act as surveillance eyes on inhabitants, not only to monitor but also to recognize and predict negative behavior. China possesses the world's largest surveillance networks. Multiple local networks of over 200 million closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in public places across the country, outfitted by various companies, provide data to authorities through programs such as SkyNet? , a big-data police video monitoring system . Although, Skynet as a program is promoted as part of the government's "smart city" initiative and crime-prevention strategy. However, deep down what it is, is a permanent surveillance presence, along with facial recognition, crowd analysis, and other AI technology, which has the potential to monitor citizens and exercise various forms of state control .

Sharp Eyes

Sharp Eyes, a new surveillance program based on the success of Skynet, proposes connecting cameras in the 'internet of things,' such as smartphones, autos, televisions, and appliances, with public surveillance cameras. By encouraging residents to engage in the surveillance system, it increases public security. Sharp Eyes is expected to expand the scope and accuracy of surveillance .

Breach of Law and Public Policy

Although, as a result of the CCP's emergency response to the COVID-19 epidemic, China has been able to expand the use of its digital authoritarian measures at home as well as in public but it still amounts to a breach of privacy rights, and basic human rights to speech and expression. The coronavirus epidemic has increased this behavior in two ways. To begin with, it has given China the discretion to expand its existing vast cyber policing and intrusive internet surveillance and secondly it has silenced critics and prevented discussion of COVID-19 under the pretense of virus control, allowing China to exercise greater control. China has used the unusual circumstances to promote its digital rights, privacy, and data collection policies, as well as the development and application of artificial intelligence.


There appears to be a dearth of hope specifically in this area of increasing surveillance and use of technology in doing so. Not only this amounts to a breach of law and policy in place, the absence of a comprehensive data privacy regulation in China adds to the growing concerns. Pursuant to the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the most recent countries to enact a new omnibus privacy law is China, which has the world's largest online population . The Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL), China's first comprehensive law to govern internet data and protect personal information, took effect on November 1, 2021, with several yet-to-be-defined components. What is counter-intuitive is that this law is being implemented by the CAC, an organization which played an active volunteer in the increasing wrongful surveillance. Among other things, fulfillment of statutory duties and news-reporting constitute as legal basis for data processing under the law, both of which can be used arbitrarily.

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Revision 1r1 - 11 May 2022 - 03:43:07 - ThomasLiu
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