08 December 2020

China-Russia. A duo for the digital surveillance of their world. For now

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

The health crisis has proved, more than anything so far, how important are the digital capabilities when it comes to imposing measures that must be followed by larger communities, sometimes even by an entire country. The digital apps have also showed when these measures are effective, who is following them and who is not, if there is a permanent or temporary behavior, a collective of an individual one. The human world is starting to get replaced by a world full of inputs, algorithms, by the nanotechnological functioning of some mechanisms the societies who want to standardize the state’s relation with citizens are already seeing as a solution to their problems. Let us not get delusional; this is also happening in societies wherein the citizens have a word to say in their businesses, but, more frequently and more coherently, in the societies wherein the population has to make do with what others decide for them. Today, we talk about Russia and China.

Image source: Profimedia

The technological competition and the race for communication control

The use of society’s digitalization has overlapped with a time wherein China and Russia’s regimes have become more authoritarian, the power got more consolidated and the need for stability has become bigger.

In 2020, it came into force the law that requires all smart phones and TVs sold in the country to come pre-installed with Russian software. The reason behind this law was the protection of the Russian consumer against the huge amount of software coming from international companies, the increase of competitiveness among the local IT products. The problem is that it creates the possibility to get access to security data of those who procure these products, by consolidating the state’s capabilities to control each citizen’s communications.

In the exact same period – which matched the time the pandemic crisis begun in Wuhan – China has elaborated and approved a law that requires each smart phone buyer to scan his/her face before using the product. In this case, the official explanation was also related to security and the promotion of internal software products, however, the application also allows the control of the population that uses these phones, which is bigger and bigger.

A competition in this field has also emerged in the West, but, in the above mentioned examples, the state has more leverage to provide primacy of local products, to push the research efforts towards those products to allow them to consolidate the control over the society.

The US measures of sanctioning the Chinese companies, for example, which are breaking, according to the US, the consumers’ rights, were immediately retaliated through a direct support of the Chinese state favoring those companies.

The rivalry between the Chinese companies and the US ones, which led to imposing sanctions against Huawei and ZTE, including by European partners, led to the emergence of the Made in China 2025 program and the China Standards 2035 initiative, by which China is financially supporting these companies and is trying to reduce their dependence on foreign products.

Even now, they are working on measures to “punish” the European countries, Nokia and Ericsson, if the EU will decide to block Huawei’s access on the European 5G implementation market.

A hint on the possible Chinese retaliation measures is Beijing’s decision, which came as an answer to Sweden’s that, in October 2020, has decided to forbid the participation of Huawei and ZTE to the 5G network development in this country. For now, China has given “time to reconsider the decision”.

Although it does not have the Chinese possibilities, Russia built also a strategy to that end, started years ago, the National Technological Initiative, promoted by president Putin in 2014, by which it tries to develop the field.

Both in Russia and China, despite the technological innovation eagerness, there are two lines of action:

- protecting the national virtual space, providing national sovereignty over the use of internet;

-limit the information circulation and control it.

Some are already speculating that China’s technological advance will allow it to globally divide the internet, so that there might actually be two versions of it: the Western version that we already know and the Chinese version, which will have more control and information filtration capabilities.

The digital surveillance in China and Russia

The times of Felix Dzerjinski and his Chinese homologue, Luo Ruinqing, the creators of the “Soviet gulag” and the Gonganbu, the Ministry of Public Security of revolutionary China, are long gone. Although for the latter, if we are talking about the confessions from one of the Western issues on the reeducation camps in Xinjiang, the past keeps coming to the present.

The means available today to physically and mentally control citizens are more sophisticated, they do not hurt, do not involve physical contact, not even isolation. Sometimes they are even cheaper. Nor should they intervene in the lives of the supervised, except in critical moments, for periodic "corrections" there are other levers, social control is intended to filter what is the "innocent" deviation from what can become "attack on state security."

It is indeed true that it is difficult to establish a clear demarcation line here, there may be errors, but the system is being improved, technologically, and refined in terms of indices.

But let's also refer to more concrete aspects.

Surveillance does not now mean men in leather clothes waiting in the car on the street corner. Video cameras, drones, even satellites are much more efficient tools, more difficult to detect, easier to use without a physical presence.

Authoritarian regimes already use these means, and the stability they register is a consequence of their "proper functioning". Problems in society are known even before people come out to protest, control and direct them, maybe even repression, they do not always take violent forms. In the initial phases, it is enough to block access to communication, to control the information. If it doesn't work, yes, then brutal contact isn't avoided either.

But it's best not to get here. China is the leader in digital surveillance, Internet control and the use of artificial intelligence to monitor the population.

CCTV video cameras are integrated into facial recognition programs. This, when it comes to 170 million cameras, allows even the monitoring of a population as large as the Chinese. After all, there are only 12 people per camera.

In Xinjiang, facial recognition programs are doubled by population DNA samples, which allow the creation of the ethnic profile of all local communities. Supervision and control allow anticipating problems, taking "reeducation" measures.

The social credit system is another national program. The data obtained by monitoring individuals and companies allow drawing their profile, based on a score of social, financial, public behavior. The program was supposed to start working effectively this year, but system problems - the state having to turn to private companies to create various components - as well as those caused by the pandemic, delayed this moment.

When it is ready, it will be simple: the "model citizen" will be promoted, the other will be disciplined. So are companies. For particular issues, it is already known what and how, because some subsystems are already operational.

In Russia, censorship is part of the historical heritage. In the 1990s, the "Operational Technical Investigation System" was created. But today's Russia is not exactly what it once used to be. The legal basis (with the necessary "improvements") exists, and the state can intervene and ask telephone operators to install, for example, a hardware required by the FSB. The chaotic privatizations of the 1990s, and a complex of factors, sometimes out of control, have led today, however, to a situation wherein the internet surveillance is already something too high for the Kremlin.

Russia does not have the sophisticated control and monitoring technologies that China has. When issues emerge, they react by banning access, blocking networks. Thus, all the old physical actions can be used when needed.

That is why the access of the Russian population to information is less restricted, especially of those to have internet access. That is why protest marches and demonstrations do not happen very often, including in isolated Siberia.

After 2012, the Kremlin realized, however, that it is not on the right track, technologies have their say and competition tends to sideline those who do not keep up. Something had to be done, the old communications networks were no longer keeping up with the hardware and software that the FSB was still trying to do.

Starting that year, 2012, it was decided to strengthen state control in the Internet, by creating the right legislation to that end, as well as the appropriate technologies.

Creating a "sovereign internet" by 2024 is one of the goals. However, China's support is needed to achieve this. The problem is that, technologically, Russia does not have national solutions to the additional problems of its creation, the internal solutions not being as functional as those of its big partner or with the western ones offered especially by Apple or Google platforms. Achieving digital sovereignty is more difficult than expected.

Digital censorship is no better. Not because it lacks political will. On the contrary, the villains would say. The adaptation of the Russian state to the spread of modern communication services of citizens, to the massive use by citizens of smart phones, of increasingly sophisticated applications, has exceeded the capabilities of central structures to keep up with new technologies.

When a crisis emerged, as it was in 2018, when there was an attempt to block the Telegram messaging application, it was shown that there are no means to achieve this. All Russian authorities have been able to do so far is to threaten Facebook and Twitter with traffic jams if they continue to refuse to provide information about users and encryption programs.

For a regime based on central authority, the situation is not promising at all. So, if necessary, they will just go back to the physical means.

The future sounds lopsided

When it comes to political will, however, one can get over technological differences. After all, Russia, in turn, has some areas in which it seems to hold the primacy: hypersonic weapons, for example, or the production of airplanes and helicopters. Most are purely military technologies. It's better here. So there are bases for cooperation.

2020 and 2021 have been identified bilaterally as the "years of Sino - Russian cooperation" in science and communications, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.

A China-Russia Joint Investment Fund for Innovation has also been set up, and a number of programs have been launched. Huawei's research program has also been launched in Russia. Cooperation with Russian companies on scientific projects has begun and, among them, perhaps most significant, is the potential implementation of the Aurora operating system, which aims to replace Android.

But this asymmetric partnership is also a source of concern. Russia does not want to depend on anyone, less a powerful and expanding neighbor. Asking for the Chinese technology will block the development of the domestic one. There is also the idea (the West knows why!) that the Chinese side will manage, within this partnership, to steal what is left of the Russian technical successes. When an attempt was made to force Huawei to build the 5G network on the territory of Russia, using internal technology for the construction of the network, it was discovered that, woops!, it does not exist.

Therefore, China seems to be more of a threat, than an opportunity. However, between a Western side that rejects it, due to incompatibility with democracy, although, technologically, it is way more attractive, and a China that is offering its services, but it is also extending its fine, compact and silky cobwebby, Moscow might choose the second option.

Translate by Andreea Soare