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Is Artificial Intelligence Helping China Spy on Its

China has constructed the largest and most automated system for
surveillance of its citizens ever seen in human history.

By Greg Austin
February 11, 2015


China has a right to access globally available intellectual property on artificial

intelligence (AI) by legal means. It also contributes to the global fund of knowledge
on AI. In May 2014, Chinas search engine giant, Baidu, recruited Hong Kong born
Andrew Ng, the head of Google Brain, to head its AI research. Chinese researchers
are among the worlds leaders in this field.
But if recent observations by Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking are right, that
artificial intelligence presents a threat to society in general, is that threat any
greater or less in the case of China? If it is greater, is there any merit in considering
export controls on artificial intelligence software and systems to China? What is the
most effective policy response to Chinas acquisition of advanced AI technology?
China has constructed the largest and most automated system for surveillance of its
citizens ever seen in human history. As argued in my book, Cyber Policy in China,
when it comes to choosing between e-democracy and i-dictatorship, the Chinese
government has opted for the latter. China is already using highly automated
systems for taking down internet traffic that it deems offensive. It has constructed a
national database of all of its citizens, and it is building key grid-by-grid locality
surveillance maps, including residency data, for sensitive parts of the country (such
as Beijing and Lhasa). While the surveillance task China has set itself is for now
beyond its technological means, a rapid development and application of AI to
political censorship and surveillance by China could shift the current balance of
power between Chinese netizens and their government heavily in favor of the latter.
The more famous gainsayers of artificial intelligence have not documented their
concerns in any detail.Hawking went so far as to suggest it might spell the end of
the human race. It would be a brave futurist who would attempt an assessment. But

think what AI will come to mean in Chinas case as long as the government
continues to improve the automation of its regime of i-dictatorship.
Moreover, we can see a deepening pattern of cooperation between U.S. firms and
U.S. investors in applying advanced AI to Chinas security state. Apart from various
law suits by various plaintiffs against major U.S. technology companies for
supporting the repression of human rights in China through provision of related
information technology, we need to only look to a web post about the 2013 China
Security Expo to begin to see the dire long term evolution of Chinas security state,
ably assisted by free enterprise of the West. This one post reveals collaboration
between two New York Stock Exchange listed companies (one Chinese and one
American) collaborating in application of AI in developing and selling surveillance
technologies. The post reads: the Intelligent Video Surveillance System is the
perfect combination of artificial intelligence and computer vision. And that is only
this decades AI-supported surveillance technology.
Once upon a time, a classic U.S. response to this sort of problem would be to
control exports of sensitive AI technology to China. Well the AI genie is out of the
bottle, out of the lab and the country. It was never wholly American to begin with.
It is now a global enterprise, and a free one at that.
As we in the advanced democracies debate the impact of heightened AI-assisted
mass surveillance at home in the name of defeating terrorism (the metadata
privacy issue), we need to begin to include consideration of the China case and,
separately, the future of AI in our debates. There is now a global challenge of newly
empowered surveillance states being able to more rapidly enhance their power
because of our support for their commercial adaptation of AI-assisted surveillance
Governments in advanced democracies and their citizens should be alarmed that
the window of opportunity for defeating automated mass surveillance in police
states is closing, and each advance in AI is setting the pace for that fading
There are policy responses available. For example, concerned actors outside China
could usefully step up their dialogue with officials and civil society activists on the
ethics of the information age. The Ministry of Public Security in China and its
related universities need to be targeted aggressively on issues of AI ethics. But that
is just one line of policy. We need a comprehensive analysis of this problem and
widespread, robust engagement across all aspects of this issue if we are to stop
advances in AI making the Chinese surveillance state the successful i-dictatorship
its leaders want it to be.