As you step out of your apartment in the morning, the camera at the entrance records your departure. Cameras track you as you drive your car to work. As you walk down the street from the car park to your office, cameras track your movements. Monitoring software follows you from one camera to the next. You walk past a police officer. He wears sunglasses, not because it’s bright outside, but because the glasses contain cameras connected to facial recognition software.
Once at the office, a camera outside the building alerts both the government and your employer that you’ve arrived.
As you log on to your computer, the government records your web browsing. The information forms a “citizen score.” Your score suffers when you visit sites that criticize the government, when you leave comments that are insufficiently supportive of government leaders and policies, or if you buy the wrong thing online.
This dystopian total surveillance state sounds far-fetched, like an idea for a fictional Hollywood movie. But it’s not.
Each of these surveillance tactics are being tested in pilot schemes in China right now. And the Chinese aren’t the only ones under surveillance.
It may be hard to take the idea of such centralized control seriously; after all, we’ve heard warnings about it for years. George Orwell described “Big Brother,” the all-seeing government, way back in 1949. His book is titled 1984, but in 2018, Big Brother is still not here.
Those who lived behind the Iron Curtain, however, had a different experience. In East Germany, 2.5 percent of the population spied on the rest. Germans had to watch what they said in public, and even in private, in case the Stasi was listening. Say the wrong thing or hang out with the wrong people, and you could find yourself the victim of a government-sponsored harassment campaign. Or worse, in jail.
Now, however, we have reached a new era where technology has made mass surveillance easier than ever before.
A 1984-style surveillance state requires the linkage of millions of cameras and the transmission and storage of masses of data. Fiber-optic networks send data at light speed, and petabytes of information are stored with ease. Facial recognition software and machine learning means that one person can track thousands.
And China is leading the way.
“Surveillance technologies are giving the government a sense that it can finally achieve the level of control over people’s lives that it aspires to,” said Adrian Zenz, a German academic who writes about China.
“Sharp Eyes” is the Chinese government’s most ambitious initiative. It aims to link up the millions of security cameras already present in China into a single nationwide surveillance platform. This includes the government cameras already on streets and shops, as well as private cameras. Official documents state that they aim for an “omnipresent, fully networked, always working and fully controllable” surveillance system by 2020.
China is running a pilot scheme for this “omnipresent” system in Chongqing. There, housing complexes unlock with a facial scan. The resident doesn’t have to fumble with his keys, but this means the government is tracking who goes in and out. Policemen at computer screens follow citizens as they walk through the streets, using cameras and facial recognition software. They track criminals—and anyone who associates with them.
“Police Cloud” is a related project that aims to collect citizens’ online information and government data, and link it to their ID cards and their faces. An individual’s shopping receipts, browsing history, medical and criminal records, and social media comments are all collated and linked to his or her face.
According to Chinese government documents, these surveillance tactics will be used to monitor criminals, which include those who undermine Chinese stability or have “extreme thoughts.”
Another pilot scheme ties a lot of this data into a “citizen score.” A high score could result in better government services and more travel opportunities. And who determines the threshold below which the government may begin taking punitive measures?
The face-recognizing sunglasses are real, too. Railway police are testing them in Zhengzhou.
The Washington Post wrote in January that “the Chinese government is working hand-in-glove with the country’s tech industry, from established giants to plucky start-ups staffed by graduates from top American universities and former employees of companies like Google and Microsoft, who seem cheerfully oblivious to concerns they might be empowering a modern surveillance state.
“China seeks to achieve several interlocking goals: to dominate the global artificial-intelligence industry, to apply big data to tighten its grip on every aspect of society, and to maintain surveillance of its population more effectively than ever before” (January 7).
In December, China demonstrated this technology to the bbc. In the city of Guiyang, police have the face of every resident on record. The police found and mock-arrested the bbc’s reporter: It took them only seven minutes.
This surveillance reaches its most extreme form in the Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang. Here the Chinese government struggles with some dissent. Xinjiang authorities have not implemented some of these measures, but they have cameras everywhere. In the provincial capital of Ürümqi, security checkpoints and id scanners guard the roads and train station. Cameras track citizens’ movements everywhere. Police carry devices to access residents’ smartphones and search them for dissenting content or banned chat apps. To fill up with gas, you must swipe your id card and look into a camera. To buy a knife, your identification information must first be stamped into the blade in the form of a qr code.
Fall afoul of the authorities and you could be barred from traveling or sent to one of the “study and training centers”—behind barbed wire, concrete walls and watchtowers.
A Danger to the West
When a government possesses this kind of power, it is certain to abuse it. Orwell described his dystopian future as “a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” The increasing use of surveillance technology in China is curtailing freedoms, and indications are the trend will continue. How can there be real freedom of thought or association when the government tracks what you say and who you associate with, and punishes you if it does not approve?
But surely such a thing could never happen in the West?
China is and always has been different from the West in fundamental ways. Its 20th-century embrace of communism has given the government of the world’s most populous nation enormous powers over the populace. Freedom of speech, popular sovereignty and individual rights are not a part of Red China’s mode of operation. Because of this, the government directly or indirectly runs most of the nation’s big businesses.
China claims to have facial recognition software far more sophisticated than that used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to the Washington Post, experts believe this is probably true. “More than anything else, experts say, deep learning technologies need huge amounts of data to come up with accurate algorithms,” it wrote. “China has more data than anywhere else in the world and fewer constraints about mining it from its citizens.”
But in terms of surveillance hardware, the West is ahead of China. America has more cctv cameras per head than China does. The United Kingdom stores 30 million to 40 million images of vehicle license plates every day, tracking the movements of most of the country’s population.
The biggest difference in the U.S. and UK is that surveillance is not used in the same heavy-handed way China does, even though your government may already be spying on you through your webcam, running facial recognition, and tracking your car far more than you realize (see Robert Morley’s article “Is the Government Reading Your E-mail?”).
Throughout history, governments have wanted to control their citizens—and have used every possible tool to do so.
As far back as ancient Rome, Cicero complained about the government reading his mail. Caligula and Nero both used surveillance as part of their reigns of terror over the Roman aristocracy. It’s easy to imagine either of these tyrants becoming a Joseph Stalin if he had Stalin’s highly organized state and the technology at his disposal.
“[G]overnment tyranny is routine in human history,” writes Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry in his booklet America Under Attack. “Let’s not be naive and think something like that could never happen here. Our forefathers weren’t stupid. They wanted to guarantee Americans’ freedom. They really knew that God is a God of freedom; He wants us to be free. That’s a gift from God, and they understood that!”
Man has never invented a weapon he has not used. And man has never invented a surveillance technique that governments have not used.
America’s Founders designed a Constitution that limited government power. They knew that the human heart is naturally evil, and that those who hold the most power over other people’s lives would quickly turn this power into tyranny if they are not held in check by law. But most of that constraint has eroded. The philosophical, political and technological potential for a surveillance state exists in nations throughout the West.
‘The Mark of the Beast’
History and an understanding of human nature tell us that these techniques could be used anywhere. But biblical prophecy gives a more specific warning.
It tells of a time coming when no man can “buy or sell” without the approval of a central government (Revelation 13:17).
The Bible calls this stamp of approval “the mark of the beast.” It is a mark of religious observance—compliance with the state-approved religion.
It is easy to see how a China-style surveillance state could enforce such a policy. Refuse this mark, and you appear on the list of people not permitted to hold a job and unable to buy goods or food at the shops.
Herbert W. Armstrong wrote, “In this scriptural usage, the expression ‘buy or sell’ more literally indicates being able to buy—not that stores or those from whom one might make purchases of the necessities of life would refuse to accept the money, but that the one refusing the ‘mark’ would not be able to buy, would not be able to earn a living, to earn a wage or salary, or to engage himself in business” (Who or What Is the Prophetic Beast?). So this prophecy could be fulfilled without a surveillance state. But mass surveillance would make it much easier. And when you see how European powers have acted throughout history, a surveillance state is likely.
History is full of religions using surveillance to enforce their beliefs. The bbc even noted in its history of government spying, “In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was more powerful than most governments—and it had a powerful surveillance network to match” (Nov. 1, 2013).
Nothing brings out a government’s passion to control what people say and think like religion does.
In A History of Christianity, Paul Johnson describes the Catholic Church’s dogged pursuit of “thought crimes”—another term popularized by Orwell. In this pursuit, the church violated “town charters, written and customary laws, and virtually every aspect of established jurisprudence,” he writes.
What would such an organization do with modern surveillance technology?
Mr. Armstrong proved in his booklet Who or What Is the Prophetic Beast?that this “mark” refers to Sunday observance. The religious power in Europe will require everyone to keep Sunday.
Imagine, then, this scenario. Cameras outside of churches record all who attend. Miss a service and you can expect to explain yourself to the authorities. The government monitors mobile phone signals: Too many in an office could mean that some are breaking the law and working on Sunday. Dashcams automatically record anyone spotted working outside.
Get caught, and your bank account is nullified. You lose your job. You cannot buy or sell. Try to get around this and the police will track you down. With cameras everywhere, there is nowhere to hide.
Phone signals are monitored every other day of the week. At large gatherings, the police can remotely turn on the microphone and listen to all that is said. If it’s an illegal religious service, the police are there within minutes.
Does all this sound like a dystopian nightmare? Again, today’s technology makes all of this possible already.