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Patents Filed by Chinese Companies Reveal Orwellian Surveillance and Human Rights Abuses

China keeps other data confidential but information about its plans to surveil its citizens constantly and ubiquitously are revealed by a source if cannot hide: patents.

by Massimo Introvigne

August 16, 2023

Headquarters of the China National Intellectual Property Administration, also known as the Chinese Patent Office. Credits.

China’s Orwellian system of surveillance of its citizens 24/7 and in every corner of the nation, including in their private homes, has been studied by scholars, journalists, and human rights activists, but is becoming increasingly difficult to document. The number of classified documents is rising, China’s mammoth academic data base has been purged, and companies such as Hikvision or Alibaba go to great lengths to hide how their cooperation with the government in the surveillance technology field operates.

There is, however, something China cannot hide—patents. True, when they develop a new surveillance technology Chinese companies may decide not to patent it for the sake of confidentiality, but this would mean it may be freely copied by Western and other competitors. Patents are public and cannot be vague, or they will be denied registration. They should offer a clear description of the technology they want to protect.

Oxford Internet Studies professor Joss Wright, together with fellow experts Valentin Weber from Germany and Gregory Finn Walton from Canada, had the bright idea of examining patents filed by Chinese companies in the surveillance field. They studied Chinese patent applications from 2010 to 2021 and presented their results in an article published on July 28, 2023 in the specialized journal “Internet Policy Review.”. More than 5,000 patents relate to surveillance technology, with a spectacular growth since the idea of “smart cities” became part of the 13th Five-Year Plan of the CCP, presented in March 2015.

The article published in the “Internet Policy Review.”

As the authors explain, the concept of “smart cities” was born in the West and brought by IBM to China in 2008. It indicates the use of Internet-based technology to answer specific city challenges, including traffic and criminality. In China, the idea of “smart cities” evolved into “city brains.” The latter are much more invasive than the former. “The goal of the city brain is to create a digital twin of a real-life city, which means that each element of a city has a digital Doppelgänger,” which the police can access. This increasingly includes the interior parts of private homes, not only public or commercial buildings.

The Western “smart cities” operate specific projects in areas such as traffic control and smart street lighting, although they have been occasionally used to speed up the police’s response to violent crime. By contrast, according to the study, Chinese “city brains” integrate all data within a single unified system, to which the authorities may have immediate access. The Chinese system also works at incredible speed. A “city brain” “can process 16 hours of [surveillance] footage in one minute.” The city of Quzhou, Zhejiang, has been selected for a pilot project and has 100% of its public space (and increasingly high percentages of private spaces as well) monitored through CCTV cameras 24/7.

The ancient gate of Quzhou’s city wall. Its citizens are now inside the walls of total surveillance. Credits.

This universal monitoring, which as evidenced by patent applications constantly becomes more totalistic, pervasive, and rapidly analyzed. “creates risks to human rights,” the study says. As the Uyghurs know even too well, “racial discrimination that is exacerbated by facial recognition cameras is a major concern.” “We argue, the authors write, that the pervasive, ubiquitous, geographically constrained and physical nature of smart city surveillance makes it at least as dangerous as more traditional online surveillance, which can only touch on the virtual elements of a citizen’s activities. Previously citizens could turn off their phone or leave their computer at home to escape surveillance. Now such evasion is illusory.”

And things will only get worse with the intrusion of technology into private homes. “The idea of extending surveillance inside buildings is captured in the term ‘intelligent buildings,’ which has been used in China for quite some time before the term smart cities appeared and designated sensors being spread throughout buildings to gather data. The energy consumption of buildings is also crucial in government surveillance. As seen in Xinjiang, a rise in consumption could correlate with suspicious behaviour and is therefore subject to constant surveillance.”

Studying patents, the authors state, has proved that “emerging smart city technologies have potential impacts on various aspects of their inhabitants’ human rights, making it increasingly difficult to preserve privacy and anonymity. Whether someone goes to work, is in the streets or at home, the surveillance industry is increasingly innovating to create and maintain ‘digital twins’ that virtually replicate buildings, pedestrians, vehicles and infrastructure. Further, this trend in smart city technologies is not only increasing, but rapidly accelerating.”

“The rise of patents related to, amongst others, artificial intelligence and the detection of abnormal or deviant behaviour in recent years highlights the potential implications for human rights in the future development and adoption of smart cities.” As a source Chinese companies and authorities can hardly hide, patents should continue to be studied to gather evidence of China’s assault on the human rights of its own citizens through technologies Beijing also sells to its “friends” abroad.


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