The authorities can scan your phones, track your face and find out when you leave your home. One of the world’s biggest spying networks is aimed at regular people, and nobody can stop it.
ZHENGZHOU, China — China is ramping up its ability to spy on its nearly 1.4 billion people to new and disturbing levels, giving the world a blueprint for how to build a digital totalitarian state.
Chinese authorities are knitting together old and state-of-the-art technologies — phone scanners, facial-recognition cameras, face and fingerprint databases and many others — into sweeping tools for authoritarian control, according to police and private databases examined by The New York Times.
Once combined and fully operational, the tools can help police grab the identities of people as they walk down the street, find out who they are meeting with and identify who does and doesn’t belong to the Communist Party.
The United States and other countries use some of the same techniques to track terrorists or drug lords. Chinese cities want to use them to track everybody. The rollout has come at the expense of personal privacy. The Times found that the authorities parked the personal data of millions of people on servers unprotected by even basic security measures. It also found that private contractors and middlemen have wide access to personal data collected by the Chinese government.
This build-out has only just begun, but it is sweeping through Chinese cities. The surveillance networks are controlled by local police, as if county sheriffs in the United States ran their own personal versions of the National Security Agency.
By themselves, none of China’s new techniques are beyond the capabilities of the United States or other countries. But together, they could propel China’s spying to a new level, helping its cameras and software become smarter and more sophisticated.
This surveillance push is empowering China’s police, who have taken a greater role in China under Xi Jinping, its top leader. It gives them a potent way to track criminals as well as online malcontents, sympathizers of the protest movement in Hong Kong, critics of police themselves and other undesirables. It often targets vulnerable groups like migrant workers — those who stream in from the countryside to fill China’s factories — and ethnic minority groups like the largely Muslim Uighurs on China’s western frontier. “Each person’s data forms a trail,” said Agnes Ouyang, a technology worker in the southern city of Shenzhen whose attempts to raise awareness about privacy drew scrutiny from the authorities. “It can be used by the government and it can be used by bosses at the big companies to track us. Our lives are worth about as much as dirt.”
‘People Pass and Leave a Shadow’ The police arrived one day in April to a dingy apartment complex in Zhengzhou, an industrial city in central China. Over three days they installed four cameras and two small white boxes at the gates of the complex, which hosts cheap hotels and fly-by-night businesses.
Once activated, the system began to sniff for personal data. The boxes — phone scanners called IMSI catchers and widely used in the West — collected identification codes from mobile phones. The cameras recorded faces.
On the back end, the system attempted to tie the data together, an examination of its underlying database showed. If a face and a phone appeared at the same place and time, the system grew more confident they belonged to the same person.
Over four days in April, the boxes identified more than 67,000 phones. The cameras captured more than 23,000 images, from which about 8,700 unique faces were derived. Combining the disparate data sets, the system matched about 3,000 phones with faces, with varying degrees of confidence.
This single system is part of a citywide surveillance network encompassing license plates, phone numbers, faces and social media information, according to a Zhengzhou Public Security Bureau database. Other Chinese cities are copying Zhengzhou. Since 2017, government procurement documents and official reports show that police in the Chinese provinces of Guizhou, Zhejiang and Henan have bought similar systems. Police in Zigong, a midsize city in Sichuan Province, bought 156 sets of the technology, the documents show. In Wuhan, police said in a procurement document that they wanted systems that could “comprehensively collect the identity of all internet users in public spaces, their internet behavior, their location, their movement, and identifying information about their phones.”