NYT: Pervasive surveillance is a serious threat -- in China

We're always willing to believe other governments abuse their powers

Published August 3, 2010 12:04PM (EDT)

Yesterday, I wrote about the proliferation of the private online surveillance industry, how it furnishes ever more thorough and invasive information to the U.S. Government about citizens' online activities, and why that destruction of privacy is so dangerous  My Salon colleague, Dan Gillmor, yesterday detailed just how comprehensive are the online surveillance capabilities which enable all of this.  Today, The New York Times confronts the same problem of privacy destruction at the hands of a pervasive Surveillance State . . . in China.  In a perfectly interesting article, Michael Wines describes how the Chinese Government has placed surveillance cameras covering virtually every public space in two of its more "restive" provinces, which last year saw deadly fighting between ethnic minorities and the Government.  He describes the dangers as follows:

Much of the proliferation is driven by the same rationales as in Western nations: police forces stretched thin, rising crime, mushrooming traffic jams and the bureaucratic overkill that attends any mention of terrorism.

But China also has another overriding concern -- controlling social order and monitoring dissent.  And some human rights advocates say they fear that the melding of ever improving digital technologies and the absence of legal restraints on surveillance raise the specter of genuinely Orwellian control over society. . . .

Officials say the cameras leverage the latest technology to battle crime and terrorism Guangdong provincial officials told Chinese news services last year that their new cameras had deterred more than 18,000 street crimes even before the one million cameras had been fully deployed. In Kunming, in south-central China, crime dropped 10 percent after the police installed new cameras, the city’s deputy police chief told a security forum last spring.

That said -- and some Western skeptics dispute claims of the cameras' crime-fighting success -- China's video surveillance clearly has a darker side. . . . The longer-term concern . . . is that video surveillance will become a pervasive tool for controlling not only China's comparative handful of dissidents, but the masses of people who ordinarily would not run afoul of the state.

So government surveillance "clearly has a darker side" and could become "a pervasive tool for controlling not only dissidents, but the masses of people who ordinarily would not run afoul of the state"?  You don't say.  Thank God we don't live in a place like China where that happens, but instead in the U.S., where surveillance is only motivated by a desire to stop Terrorism and other crimes.

It's certainly true that China deploys surveillance cameras far more aggressively, at least in these two provinces, than the U.S. does.  But the level of other types of at least equally invasive surveillance by the U.S. Government -- including warrantless monitoring of telephone and Internet communications records, as well as Internet browsing activities -- is approaching the level of absoluteness.  As the ACLU's privacy expert Chris Calabrese told me yesterday:  "if the Government can monitor your Internet searches and store your broswing history, the list of websites you visit, that's close to being able to read your mind."  And, of course, the 2008 FISA Amendments Act dramatically expanded the Government's ability to read the content of Americans' emails and eavesdrop on their calls without warrants.

It isn't as though the U.S. has no history of severe surveillance abuses by the Government against its citizens.  The opposite is true.  It's not really hyperbole to say that every decade of the last century has seen such abuses, with a fairly unbroken trend toward more ever-invasive measures, including many in the last decade.  The only episode that imposed some mild restraints -- the mid-1970s reforms brought about by the Church Committee's exposure of decades of severe abuses -- has been drowned by the post-9/11 explosion of the Surveillance State.  And then there was that instantly forgotten Washington Post series from a couple weeks ago documenting how our Surveillance State is so vast and secretive that nobody even knows what it does, let alone restrains it. 

But anyway:  let's fret about the dark side of China's surveillance activities.  It's always bizarre how eager we are to focus on the threatening acts of other countries' Governments and how finely attuned we're willing to be to the likelihood for abuse -- over there -- while blissfully averting our eyes from similar threats from our own Government and remaining happily faithful that our own government officials would never do such things no matter how many times they do.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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