Sharper Eyes: Surveilling the Surveillers (Part 1)

digital times

“The people have .” (“群众的眼睛是雪亮的.”)

This Communist Party slogan was heavily used during the Cultural Revolution, an era in which citizens were incentivized to spy on and even falsely accuse family and neighbors of being disloyal to authority. More than 50 years after that tumultuous era began, the slogan has been reincarnated in an ambitious and highly invasive program called Sharp Eyes (雪亮工程), one of the newer additions to China’s increasingly omnipresent state. This rural-focused initiative marries cutting-edge technology with Mao-era, crowd-sourced efforts by encouraging residents to surveil public video feeds and report suspicious incidents using their TVs and mobile devices.

Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, described in an email to CDT how Beijing’s approach to surveillance has shifted over the last 40 years. “During earlier times, there were mechanisms for controlling people through the danwei, hukou and dang’an systems; but the transition to a more market-based economy means new means of control are now necessary. And so the Party turns to new technologies.”

Sharp Eyes was officially launched in May 2015. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), alongside the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the Ministry of Public Security, and six other responsible ministries and commissions, jointly stated that Sharp Eyes was to be completed in rural regions by 2020, with “full coverage, network sharing, real-time availability, and full control.” Stated goals include 100% video surveillance coverage in key public areas and major industries (such as transportation, environmental protection, and urban management), new or upgraded HD cameras, full cross-network sharing of surveillance data, and government participation at all levels. In addition to this document, anywhere between 14 and over 20 other documents form the basis for Sharp Eyes’ construction.

A year later, the NDRC, the Central Comprehensive Management Office, and the Ministry of Public Security jointly approved 48 demonstration cities. By the end of 2017, the central government had spent 3.1 billion yuan on Sharp Eyes. In February 2018, Sharp Eyes was mentioned in a primary Central Committee agricultural planning document, with apparent personal input from Xi Jinping. In 2018, China had 786 projects with budgets of over 10 million yuan in the “security defense” [安防] and Sharp Eyes domains. Total spending on these was about 36.57 billion yuan.

We aim to shed light on this surveillance program in particular because it has been overshadowed by other programs such as the social credit system and the use of facial recognition to shame rule-breakers. In addition, by extending surveillance into rural areas, the program demonstrates how expansive Beijing’s aims are: to create a truly omnipresent surveillance state.

“The Chinese government has been upfront about its ambition: that it is developing technologies for mass surveillance and social control,” HRW’s Wang told CDT. “Of course, in official documents it employs euphemisms like better ‘social management,’ but if you look at the context the Party is referring to social control.”

In describing the chief motivations for this project, CDT founder and editor-in-chief Xiao Qiang said: “The Chinese party-state is fusing surveillance technology in the area of big data and AI with this one-party dictatorship. China is well on its way to becoming a total surveillance state. Sharp Eyes is not just about the state trying to surveil its own people to the point of ‘no blind spots.’ It’s also about the state inducing citizens to surveil one another. One effective way to counter such a worrisome trend is to surveil the surveillers. CDT’s Sharper Eyes project is one such initiative.”

Sharp Eyes has a distinct rural focus intended to address a current lack of sufficient police presence and security camera coverage in the countryside. To overcome this, Sharp Eyes is extending coverage into rural areas and integrating rural-urban surveillance by increasing video coverage of urban and rural junctions and rural public areas. It aims to create a nationwide surveillance and data-sharing platform that has “no blind spots” by constructing rural information systems to gather video data at the county, township, and village levels. Despite this focus, however, Sharp Eyes is not a strictly rural surveillance project. Sharp Eyes is truly nationwide in scope, and includes projects in major metropolises such as Guangzhou and Beijing.

Chinese sources often portray Sharp Eyes as an extension and upgrade of predecessor programs such as the Golden Shield Project, Skynet, and Safe Cities. According to state media, Skynet was launched in 2005 and has 20 million cameras in use across 16 cities and provinces. It has round-the-clock coverage of major districts, streets, schools, and business centers, and timed surveillance over minor streets.

Skynet dovetails with Safe Cities, which provides disaster warnings and urban management and public security maintenance through three interlocking systems covering technical and physical systems and civil air defense. Its groundwork programs were launched in 2003 with Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Jinan selected as demonstration cities. This was subsequently expanded to 21 cities in 2004, and 22 provinces in 2005.

Sharp Eyes builds upon Skynet by connecting existing public security camera networks that scan large public areas—such as roads, shopping malls, and squares—with private cameras at the entrances of residences and other buildings. Where Skynet aims for full public coverage, Sharp Eyes integrates public and private cameras into one large police network that feeds into local command and control centers. The groundwork for this was laid under Sharp Eyes’ direct predecessor, the 2011 Village-to-Village surveillance program. It began linking Skynet cameras with private cameras, monitors, and alarms to maximize coverage, while employees monitored control centers around the clock. Under Sharp Eyes, this expanding network increasingly includes high-definition cameras, vehicle and license plate recognition cameras, and facial recognition technology. To create full rural coverage, Sharp Eyes monitoring points will be connected with Skynet’s existing monitoring centers at the county level and to local police stations.

The Birthplace of Sharp Eyes

The Sharp Eyes project was born in , Shandong Province, which was selected as one of the first demonstration cities in June 2016. Pingyi County, in Linyi city, provides a stark example of Sharp Eyes’ aims to overcome the lack of rural security presence by marrying Mao-era methods of human surveillance with new tech. 360,000 cameras constantly watch over Linyi. Eighty-two percent of Pingyi’s population of 1.06 million live in rural areas, yet even in each of  its most remote villages, there were at least six monitoring probes built at a total cost of more than 40 million yuan. According to RFA, there were 2.93 million public security cameras and 2,491 monitoring centers across Shandong as of June 2018.

Before becoming a Sharp Eyes demonstration city, Linyi launched an “All Households are Monitors” [户户都是监控员”工程] project in 2015, which involved upgrading the cable boxes on citizens’ televisions so that they could directly view surveillance feeds. This allowed citizens to report crimes by pressing a button on their remote control; a guiding propaganda slogan was, “Remote control in hand, safety in heart.”

Linyi also featured the “Everyone is a Safety Officer” [“人人都是平安员”工程] project, which was based on a mobile app that pushed video surveillance and public security information to citizens, and mobilized them to participate in public security prevention. The “Neighbors Help Each Other” [“邻里互助”工程] project involved putting households into groups to be on the lookout for public security incidents, and report them using their mobile phones.

Some villagers lauded the program, saying that they “never again worried about losing their sheep,” and that women felt safe at home while the men went to the city to work. The Los Angeles Times heard similar praise from villagers in Sichuan province, which had installed 40,000 surveillance cameras for Sharp Eyes across over 14,000 villages by December 2017.

Sharp Eyes as Social Management

State-affiliated tabloid Global Times has claimed that Sharp Eyes will be employed to more effectively fight crime and improve governance—for instance, by helping to solve traffic disputes and curb corruption by identifying government vehicles being used for private purposes/gain—or to reduce instances of scams, smuggling, and gambling.

As in other countries, crime reduction—and its associated increase in public stability—has been one of the government’s major arguments to persuade citizens to accept widespread surveillance. According to state media, since Sharp Eyes was launched in the Beijing town of Yizhuang in October 2017, burglary and vehicle theft cases decreased by 76.4%, and criminal cases overall dropped 38.6%. Following the implementation of Sharp Eyes in the aforementioned pilot city Linyi in 2016, the number of criminal cases filed fell by 18.59% year-on-year, with similar results in Pingtan County in Fujian province.

At its core, Sharp Eyes is justified as helping to create a better social management system. Beijing describes this as a “three-dimensional security safety net” incorporating “public security prevention and control,” “social management,” and “serving people’s livelihood.” The government has also stated that another goal of Sharp Eyes is to prevent violent terrorist and ethnic separatist activities.

One of the documents that form the basis for Sharp Eyes demonstrated Beijing’s aims for deepened social management just before Sharp Eyes was launched. “Opinions on Strengthening the Construction of Social Security Prevention and Control System” highlights the need to use population density and geographical location to “scientifically divide” patrol areas, optimize the placement of prevention and control forces, and optimize frequency of armed patrols by Ministry of Public Security and People’s Armed Police forces, especially during morning and evening peaks. It also aims to take precautions against violence on public transport and key thoroughfares, and improve the safety of key places such as kindergartens, schools, hospitals, and financial institutions.

Tying in with this are plans to eventually introduce behavioral analysis, which would be able to “predict vicious events,” allowing preemptive action. Similar behavior-based predictive policing programs are already being used in Xinjiang. Although this kind of automated analysis is not Sharp Eyes’ primary focus, there is considerable leeway for local implementation, and some bidding documents go into extensive detail on technical requirements and emphasize the need for facial recognition. Zhejiang Province’s Deqing County offers one example. Yitu is one of China’s 14 AI “unicorns” worth over one billion USD, and has taken the top spot in the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) facial recognition competition three years in a row. In March 2018, Yitu won a deal worth 18 million yuan to provide facial recognition and vehicle recognition technology to the county’s Public Security Bureau for its Sharp Eyes project. Vehicle recognition is distinct from license plate recognition, as it involves identifying outer characteristics of the car, such as color, scratches, and contours, without needing to scan the license plate.

Hindrances, Vulnerabilities, and Blind Spots

Despite grand claims from Chinese state media on Sharp Eyes’ successes, an extensive report from IPVM on the program concludes that achieving “no blind spots” is “highly improbable.” It cites local officials and blueprints frankly admitting technical difficulties, inconsistent standards, and lack of adequate funds and professionals. In a commentary for the Wall Street Journal, HRW’s Wang stressed that Chinese surveillance systems overall are significantly hindered by bureaucratic inefficiencies.

Another potential issue is third-party abuse of Sharp Eyes infrastructure. In a report authored for the U.S.-China Commission, analysts detail how Beijing is “actively researching IoT [Internet of Things] vulnerabilities, both for security purposes and almost certainly to collect intelligence, conduct network reconnaissance for cyberattacks, and enhance its domestic surveillance powers.” Past security failures involving Chinese surveillance systems, however, suggest that defense has taken a back seat to offense. Bennett Cyphers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation warns that “Sharp Eyes has a large focus on deploying a massive amount of cheap internet-connected devices to TVs, street cameras, etc to surveil the masses. This is not only an abject breach of personal , but it’s also terrible for security. We know people don’t usually prioritize IoT device security, and who knows how cheaply these will be made at such a large scale. For instance, many don’t provide secure remote update mechanisms, so if vulnerabilities are discovered, they often can’t be patched without physically visiting every device. Some of the most devastating botnets grow by taking advantage of insecure internet-connected devices, including the infamous Mirai, which was able to take down large swaths of the Internet.”

Global Voices’ Oiwan Lam highlighted concerns that such upgraded TV systems could potentially facilitate surveillance within the privacy of citizens’ homes. Lam cited a censored post from subcontractor Guangdong Aebell Technology Corporation that describes the Sharp Eyes system they are building, which “appropriates household TV sets and smartphones to enhance the extension of surveillance systems to households and individuals.” Lam added: “Some are worried that the system will be further appropriated for the monitoring of private spaces—that once the mobiles and TVs are connected to the network, their built-in cameras and microphones could be turned on by the network operator in order to surveil citizens in their own homes.” Additionally, Sharp Eyes may aid increased surveillance of religious practitioners. A citizen told Bitter Winter: “The CCP is already monitoring us in our homes, what privacy do we have left? It’s like we’ve all got ropes around our necks and are being led on leashes. We’re all living under a microscope, and it’s terrifying.”

Sharp Eyes, Blurred Edges

In an upcoming post in our Sharp Eyes series, we will detail the scope and scale of select projects nationwide, noting which companies are involved. Before we dive further, however, it is worth noting a few caveats. Given that Sharp Eyes is often seen as an extension of Skynet, and therefore dovetails with the ongoing Safe Cities initiative, statistics on the number of cameras and projects are often lumped together in Chinese coverage. For instance, one Chinese resource claims that there were 3,559 projects in 2018 in the “security monitoring” industry, Sharp Eyes, and Safe Cities domains, which accounted for 70% of all projects nationwide. English language coverage from IHS Markit research claims that China had 176 million cameras nationwide by 2016, with a projected tripling to 626 million by 2020. Concrete camera figures for each program, and clear lines between the numbers of cameras with and without integrated facial recognition features, are not always readily available or verifiable. As a natural extension of this, both English and Chinese coverage can conflate other national surveillance programs, or localized, independent surveillance projects in testing grounds such as Xinjiang, with Skynet or Sharp Eyes.

Lastly, the vast majority of resources consulted are from publicly available, online Chinese sources. These are either state media reports, analyses from websites targeting the domestic public security and surveillance industries, or tender documents from government sources. We cannot independently verify the progress of the projects we’ve identified, nor the veracity of the information provided.

This post was co-written by Dahlia Peterson and Josh Rudolph, with research assistance from Cindy. Dahlia Peterson is a Research Analyst at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University. Additional posts in this series will be published in coming days.

Curated from CDT