recently reported on the new developments in China regarding its social code citizens’ surveillance system. This has since been extended to businesses as well. By now, thousands of Australian citizens will also have been included in this system, especially people travelling to China for business or tourism. Chinese students in Australia and Chinese visitors to Australia will be included in this surveillance system as well. It will also apply to foreign-owned companies based in China. Further, China will make anyone using the internet scan their face before they receive access.
In their own words: new system is to provide “full coverage”. “It will cover every district, every ministry, every business and other institution and every citizen, basically covering the whole society. It will also cover all targets, including all networks, information systems, cloud platforms, the internet of things, control systems, big data and mobile internet.” No information contained on any server located within China will be exempted from this full coverage program. No communication from or to China will be exempted.
Without any of the legal protection systems available to citizens in democratic societies, the Chinese Government can do what they want with that information. There are no institutions that have an oversight function to monitor the usage of the information. With the growing economic importance of China, their surveillance tentacles are spreading deeper and wider in societies all over the world.
With its increased economic power and the fact that countries such as Australia increasingly depend on China for its economic prosperity, it would not be surprising if Australian companies and organisations are “bullied” into following the rules set by China. The outcome of the political situation in Hong Kong and Taiwan will become a clear lesson of what to expect from China in this respect.
However, it looks like surveillance systems using face recognition will no longer be limited to totalitarian regimes. Australia has been working on such a system since 2018. While it was good to see last week that the originally proposed face recognition system – known as the Identity-matching Services Bill 2019 (IMS Bill) – has been sent back to the drawing board, it’s astonishing that the Australian Government and its bureaucrats even came up with this plan. There seems to be no respect for privacy and no mention of transparency. There is also no underlying legalisation that would indicate where or how the system would be used and what the checks and balances are.
Did those who designed this plan really think that Australia is like China? That they would be able to get away with such a totalitarian project? I do find it frightening that politicians and bureaucrats even thought that it would be possible to push this Bill through Parliament. It tells you something about how little they value the protection of our democratic values.
Among western democracies, I have only come across France as another jurisdiction that is implementing nationwide face recognition — although with the appropriate privacy and legislative safeguards. It will, for example, not be used for a national ID database. Other countries also employ face recognition applications for certain purposes, but it looks like If the Bill succeeds, Australia will be the first one among western democracies to use it as a national ID system that can be used by a multitude of government institutions and agencies.
It is unlikely that we can stop mass surveillance — even in democratic societies. The temptation for governments and their law enforcement and security institutions is simply too great. The technology is there and will only further improve — and it is so much cheaper than other more limited, manual security systems. The only thing that we as a democratic society can do is to use our democratic systems to ensure that we make the process as transparent as possible with robust safeguards. This won’t happen automatically — we will need to stand up for these values to make this happen.
A key problem here is that these issues are (relatively) invisible to the general public. They don’t present a “clear and present danger” that mobilises people to push their elected leaders hard enough to respond.
We always need to bear in mind that 99 per cent of the population is not doing anything seriously wrong. We need to make sure that the democratic rights of personal freedom and privacy will always be protected. Is it really necessary or justified to go so far overboard with mass nationwide surveillance, resulting in the loss of our democratic values?
The current attack on press freedom is another aspect of this disrespect for our democratic values.
I feel particularly strongly about this issue as my father as a 22-year-old ended up in a Nazi concentration camp because he protested the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Its secretive system allowed the regime to do whatever they wanted, based on whatever grounds they saw fit and without any form of transparency or protections for the individual. With the level of historic awareness of such evil systems slowly fading away in western society, we are slipping into complacency.
Our information and communications technology industry is very well aware of the pros and cons of technology and therefore has an extra responsibility to ensure that the products and services that we produce will be used to better our society and not to undermine it.