Workmen update repairs on a surveillance camera in Beijing last month. Frederic J. Brown | AFP/Getty Images
The government has installed about 300,000 cameras in Beijing and set up a network to spy on its citizens and foreigners.
By Mark Magnier
BEIJING — The blocking of human rights websites in China leading up to the Olympics is part of an information control and surveillance network awaiting visitors that will include monitoring devices in hotels and taxis and snoops almost everywhere.
Government agents or their proxies are suspected of stepping up cyber-attacks on overseas Tibetan, human rights and press freedom groups and the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement in recent weeks. And China is spending huge sums on sophisticated surveillance systems that incorporate face recognition technology, biometrics and massive databases to help control the population.
China has installed about 300,000 cameras in Beijing under an estimated $6.5-billion, seven-year program dubbed the Grand Beijing Safeguard Sphere. Although face recognition software still can’t process rapidly moving images, China hopes that it can soon electronically identify faces out of a vast crowd.
“China is trying to project a picture and a narrative about the Olympics,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. “By limiting journalists, shutting down the Internet, arresting activists, it’s hoping to control the message.”
The world’s most populous nation has legitimate concerns, as seen this week in an attack in the far western province of Xinjiang that killed 16 police officers. Few expect the security infrastructure to be even partially dismantled, a step Greece took after hosting the 2004 games.
Critics said these systems give China more advanced tools in its bid to control domestic critics, activists and media. In recent months China has recruited thousands of Beijing taxi drivers and hundreds of thousands of neighborhood busybodies to keep an eye on foreigners and its own citizens.
“Everyone feels they’re entering a police state, which by the way it is, duh,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of New York-based Human Rights in China. “So they’ve got people reporting down to the lowest neighborhood level, which is not new, overlaid by state-of-the-art technology. It’s the best of the old and the new.”
Another technology that raises concern involves the new identity cards China is phasing in for its 1.3 billion citizens. The cards, developed with help from Plano, Texas-based China Information Security Technology, carry radio signal devices and a chip that records not only a person’s height, weight and identification number, but also health records, work history, education, travel, religion, ethnicity, reproductive history, police record, medical insurance status and even his or her landlord’s phone number.
Near the Second Ring Road in downtown Beijing, Wu Naimei, 74, sat on a folding chair fanning herself. “If we see any suspicious people, we call the police and report on them,” the retired subway worker said, adding that she can’t define a suspicious person but knows one when she sees one. “We are happy to help protect our motherland, assist the nation and help our leaders relax.”
The West might have a stronger argument in questioning China’s potential for intrusive surveillance if it weren’t moving rapidly in the same direction. London is believed to have the largest number of closed-circuit TV cameras of any city in the world. Many countries have seen vast troves of personal data lost or stolen. Financial records and phone calls are now routinely monitored.
The difference is that Western countries have better checks on police power, some human rights activists said, even as they expressed concern that the U.S. could soon be using technologies developed in China.
“Every country wants to avoid abuse of police power,” said Xu Zhiyong, a lecturer at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. “It’s getting better in China, but we still have a ways to go.”
In addition to blocking online information about corruption and human rights violations, the government is suspected of collecting information on visitors’ Internet search activity.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said late last month that foreign-owned hotels in China were under pressure to sign contracts authorizing police to install hardware and software to monitor their guests’ Internet activity. Hotel managers contacted in Beijing declined to comment.
This followed a State Department warning in March that “all hotel rooms and offices are considered to be subject to on-site or remote technical monitoring at all times.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang quickly called the U.S. report irresponsible and denied that China employed more surveillance than normal.
In Beijing, two taxi drivers who asked not to be identified while discussing confidential matters displayed a pair of black button-sized devices just to the left of their steering wheel linked to the vehicle’s navigation system. They said the devices allow a central monitoring station to listen to anything inside the taxi.
One driver said that besides listening in on passengers, officials can hear any griping he might do about the Communist Party, which could result in punishment.
The Danish women’s soccer team caught two men spying on its members in September during a FIFA World Cup meet in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Lars Berendt, the group’s communication director, said in a telephone interview from their headquarters in Brondby.
Berendt said team members were in a hotel room having a tactical meeting when they noticed some movement behind what turned out to be a one-way mirror. In an adjoining room, they found two men, at least one of whom wore a hotel badge, and they held them until police arrived.
Berendt said the hotel denied any knowledge of the incident, and the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, said it was a matter for local authorities. Chinese police haven’t commented on any investigation.
“We’re not holding our breath,” Berendt said.
The state-run New China News Agency quoted fans as saying the Danes were just sore losers.
Security experts say company executives attending the Olympics are being advised to bring computers that have been wiped clean and to safeguard their smart phones. In extreme cases, they are also weighing the laptop to the gram to test whether ultra-light hardware devices have been added.
But a Western security consultant for one Olympic sponsor who asked not to be identified given the sensitive nature of his work said many of these fears were overblown, and that Chinese police had better things to do than spy on every “self-important corporate executive.”
Li Wei, a counter-terrorism expert with the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a semiofficial research organization, said most Chinese surveillance was in line with that of other Olympic host nations and didn’t dangerously compromise privacy.
Still, experts such as Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center and author of a recent report on Chinese surveillance, believe that China is pushing the envelope.
“With Internet controls, there are ways around,” Rotenberg said. “But with surveillance technologies, you’re getting into the fabric of the state.”