A Smart City is a city built on the combination of endowments and activities of self-decisive, independent, and aware citizens. It follows strategies through the innovation and use of its natural resources, the city areas that collect large amounts of data and use it to improve city operations. Developers can produce applications based upon managed data to be converted into insights and insights into tools. These applications can serve as a form of public-private partnerships and create opportunities for the public sector, private sector, and the citizens. Privacy International brings some clearance to the definition of “Smart Cities” based on global multinationals – For IBM – it is about finding “new ways for the city to work”; For Google’s Alphabet, “building innovation to help cities meet their biggest challenges.”; For Siemens, “open-air computers” make them “healthier, more comfortable, and more relaxed.”
The development of “digital cities” or “smart cities” in China started in 2011 with the adoption of the 12th Five-Year Plan, when it was announced the intention “to accelerate the construction of new-generation IT infrastructure, mobile communication networks, internet infrastructures, digital and television broadcasting networks, satellite communication facilities, and an ultra-high-speed, large capacity, and brilliant national trunk transmission network, broadband connection throughout urban and rural areas to strengthen interconnectivity.”
This is the basis of modern China’s smart cities and citizens’ surveillance.49% of the smart cities are located in Asia. Smart Cities projects are expanding in Central Asia; the main countries and tech companies introducing them are tech companies from the People’s Republic of China.
In Central Asia, the countries are accelerating the development of safe cities to focus on security and order with Chinese assistance in developing and financing them: Tajikistan in 2013, Kazakhstan in 2007, Kyrgyzstan in 2019; In China in the World index developed by Taiwan-based Doublethink Lab, Central Asian countries, at least Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan collaborated (such as data collection or exchange agreement, or adoption of related hardware) with the PRC government or PRC-connected entities on facial, voice recognition or other applications involving biometrics achieved by AI.
Xinxiang became a kind of frontline laboratory for “Smart City” and surveillance technology, where start-up and tech companies first test surveillance technologies. Xinjiang – a model of digital repression that China has developed first and foremost for security reasons and for enabling severe human rights violations and developed many novel forms of surveillance, making it a world leader in repressive uses of digital surveillance such as facial recognition and biometric data collection integrated widely in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region in western China. In 2017, the government officials in Xinxiang started collecting Uighurs, 3D portraits, voiceprints, fingerprints” and iris scans from all residents of ages 12 and 65 in the framework of a free public-healthcare program called Physicals for All and collected.
The military personnel check the residents’ smartphones for banned mobile apps and require each vehicle to have a GPS tracking device. Smart cities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) already form part of the state authorities’ systematic surveillance and repression of Muslim ethnic groups in the region. Facial and gait recognition, coupled with CCTV outside mosques, and powered by AI and analytics technology, enables authorities in Xinxiang to maintain a “digital police state.”
Famous tech company Huawei worked with facial recognition start-up Megvii in 2018 to test an AI camera system that could scan faces in a crowd and estimate each person’s age, sex, and ethnicity. The plan could trigger an ‘Uyghur alarm’ if it detected an Uyghur, flagging them to China police, where members of the group have been detained en-masse in the re-education camps. One of the authorities in Uighur studies, author of The Xinjiang Papers – Dr.Adrian Zens, an expert on Xinjiang, says that the companies like Huawei can develop such systems in regions like Xinjiang in tandem with the security services, which can enable intrusive surveillance – makes surveillance accessible and possibly palatable in other nations including Central Asia.
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), based on a database leak discovered by Victor Gevers in MongoDB from SenseTime, which provides video-based crowd analysis and facial recognition technology, reported about live-tracking the locations of about 2.6 million Uighur residents of Xinjiang: the records include individuals’ national ID number, ethnicity, nationality, phone number, date of birth, home address, employer, and photos. Within 24 hours, 6.7 million individual GPS coordinates were streamed to and collected by the database, linking individuals to various public camera streams and identification checkpoints associated with location tags such as “hotel,” “mosque,” and “police station.” Police in Xinxiang force the residents (targeting Uyghur Muslim population) to install the mobile app called JingWang (Citizen Safety) developed by police forces from Ürümqi, Xinjiang’s capital. Urumqi Municipal Public Security Bureau launched the “People’s Safety” app on April 25, 2017, as information reporting software used by the municipal public security bureau to take the initiative and technical attack and successfully develop the grass-roots and ordinary people. The app (spyware) sends the government a user’s WeChat and Weibo chat records and the device’s IMSI and IMEI and Wi-Fi login details. Adam Lynn from Open Technology Fund confirmed that the JingWang app significantly lacks the security to protect the private, personally identifying information of its users: The app extracts a phone’s IMEI, MAC Address, manufacturer, model, phone number, subscriber ID, and filenames with hashes for all files stored on the person’s device; Jing Wang scans for specific files stored on the device, including HTML, text, and images, by comparing the phone’s contents to a list of MD5 hashes. A hash is a digital fingerprint of a piece of data. Full Jing Wang Report of OTF is available here.
Umedjon Majidi – Author of the blog series, Expert/Research Consultant, Civic IDEA