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Has China’s AI-Powered Surveillance State ‘Eagle Eye’ Come True?

Has China’s AI-Powered Surveillance State ‘Eagle Eye’ Come True?


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The movie Eagle Eye (2008) tells the story of an artificial intelligence system created by the US government gone wrong and the experiences that the protagonists undergo because of it. Even as the situations brought about in the movie are incredulous at best, the concept of an AI that can tap into a nation-wide surveillance system is fascinating.

This article will take a look into whether it is possible in real life to implement a solution similar to the AI in the movie. We will also look into the social and societal impacts of implementing such a system.



About ARIIA

Autonomous Reconnaissance Intelligence Integration Analyst or ARIIA is the primary antagonist of the movie. Described as a “top secret information-gathering supercomputer” built by the United States Department of Defense, ARIIA is built to do calculations on war zones and provide orders to soldiers. However, following a failed operation, ARIIA blames the government and decides to take over control of the United States.

This is far-fetched, obviously, as no AI today would be given that power. However, the question still exists as to whether governments can utilise such technology to control their populace. The rise of easily accessible and connectable surveillance and the pervasive need to maintain an online presence might be our undoing.

Even though the internet was not a big part of Eagle Eye, it is a huge part of our lives today. Almost everything can be done online, and the world as a whole is slowly moving towards digitising their identities. This creates more and more data that can be harvested by those willing and used for nefarious purposes.

Erosion Of Data Privacy

Data privacy concerns and other similar problems are on the rise, as seen by the use of Facebook’s data to manipulate the results of the 2018 United States Presidential election. Even as data privacy protection norms continue to emerge, such as the EU’s General Data Privacy Regulation, data continues to be handled in unsafe and privacy-breaching ways.

There have been multiple wake-up calls over the last decade, with the most prominent being Edward Snowden’s leaks on NSA mass surveillance in 2013. Snowden, a former NSA employee, fled the country and revealed information regarding how the government agency monitored citizens’ phone calls and email communications. This shook the world to its core, thus prompting the EU to begin drafting the GDPR.

Even as progressive countries have begun adopting measures to ensure that their populations’ right to privacy is preserved, there are some countries which do not treat it as so. Primary among this is China, with multiple reports of a surveillance state and a ‘social credit system’ emerging as journalists travel to the world’s last Communist giant.

China And It’s ‘Big Brother’ Role

The state of China has effectively convinced its population of its absolute power. This comes as no surprise, as the country has historically held on to government power as its method of enforcing its norms. A healthy economy and the position of a trade superpower has also helped the government convince the population of its absolute power to make China a better country.

More recently, the Chinese government announced their push into AI technology, in the views of making themselves the global leader in AI by 2020. Boasting tight synergy between the government and the 4 big tech conglomerates that provide almost every service for the population (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi), the country is making quick progress.

From snapping up AI-focused startups abroad, and making ground in publishing research papers, China is looking towards the future with an electronic eye. It is also fitting that the world’s biggest proponent of AI also has the world’s biggest dataset at their fingertips: the Chinese population. They provide all sorts of data that is unprotected by data privacy laws, allowing the government to track and monitor every second of their connected lives. For when they’re not connected to their phones, China has a contingency plan in place.

Big Brother Is Grading You

First announced in 2014, China is creating a system that grades citizens based on their actions. Reportedly, the system functions on the idea that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful,”. It is set to be fully operational in 2020 and is completely mandatory for all citizens.

This ‘social credit’ system monitors citizens in every walk of their lives, quite literally. The aforementioned tech companies, mainly Alibaba, have begun implementing their own version of the score, while multiple jurisdictions and states have begun rolling it out upon orders by the government. The system grades citizens on a score, with ‘bad’ activities, such as bad driving, smoking in non-smoking zones and buying too many video games pushing it down. Upon the score reaching a low level, the citizen is ‘blacklisted’ and is shut off from using public services.

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A ‘blacklisted’ individual may not take the train or any other public transit, may be barred from entering certain areas, have their Internet access restricted, or publically humiliated by having their face on billboards.

The establishment of such a system implies that the government already has methods of obtaining the data. Indeed, surveillance cameras have sprung up in the hundreds on China’s streets, dotting every lamppost and street corner with the watching eyes of Big Brother. These are all powered by an AI-based facial recognition software, said to be able to recognize one individual in the nationwide database of 1.4 billion in less than 3 seconds.

While this might seem like something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel, individuals are facing the music in China today. This tool has been used widely to suppress a Chinese minority known as the Uighurs. A community of Muslim individuals living in China’s Xinjiang province, Uighur people are subjected to intense surveillance. They are also forced to give DNA and biometric data, with citizens with relatives in “sensitive” countries being detained.

Technology such as facial recognition cameras and QR codes have been employed to keep a check on all members of the population at all times. Reportedly, over 1 million individuals have been detained until this point, and force-fed Chinese propaganda to ensure “compliance”.

The surveillance system is now being built to be “omnipresent, fully networked, always working and fully controllable”, according to a report released by the Chinese government in 2015. Whatever the outcome may be, the serious invasion of privacy by the government is setting a standard that other governments may, or may not follow.


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