China’s Skynet Surveillance System in Trouble Amid US Trade War

The United States is considering export controls to tighten sales to Chinese companies whose technology is helping the Chinese government to monitor its own people in China. (Image:  publicdomainpictures  /  CC0 1.0)
The United States is considering export controls to tighten sales to Chinese companies whose technology is helping the Chinese government to monitor its own people in China. (Image: publicdomainpictures / CC0 1.0)

China’s ambitious Skynet surveillance system is now facing a crisis situation after a spate of international sanctions blocked Beijing from acquiring the necessary technical components to widen its implementation.

Skynet and sanctions

China has installed approximately 170 million cameras at important locations as part of the Skynet project. The government wants to push it to 400 million cameras by the year 2020. The Skynet system uses an advanced AI that is able to identify a person even from a distance of 15 kilometers.

Eventually, the system will allow the Communist Party to observe any person in China, anytime, anywhere. However, the implementation of the Skynet system requires sourcing high tech components from the West. And this is where China is facing a problem.

Several countries have imposed trade sanctions against selling such components to China. For instance, Beijing used to import components from a Netherlands-based company. However, the Netherlands government blocked the export license of the company, preventing it from dealing with China. Earlier, China used to import surveillance equipment from the West through Hong Kong to overcome sanctions. But now, even shipments to Hong Kong are affected.

A man with the surname Zhang, was seen on a video surveillance camera nervously pacing back and forth, while holding his five-month-old child in his arms. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

China has installed approximately 170 million cameras at important locations as part of the Skynet project. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

And though Beijing is seriously considering switching over to domestic suppliers for sourcing components, the truth is that most Chinese companies are nowhere near the high-quality technology offered by the West.

For instance, the West had recently blocked Beijing from procuring a laser surveillance tube. And even though Beijing found a domestic supplier, the product was discovered to be much inferior when compared to the Western one. The Chinese item could only generate one billion beams per second, which is almost a thousand times slower than the products sourced from the West.

If China were to implement the domestically produced laser surveillance tube, it would end up capturing images and videos with lesser clarity. And this would be a big blow for the Skynet system.

A tool for dictatorial control and persecution

Beijing uses the Skynet System to monitor, intimidate, and even persecute dissidents. And as far as the U.S. is concerned, this is against basic human rights.

An abhorrent use of Skynet system was in the Xinjiang Province against the Uyghur Muslim community. According to reports, the Uyghurs were kept under constant surveillance of the Skynet system, which alerted the authorities on anyone ‘suspected’ of acting against state policies.

The Uyghurs were kept under constant surveillance of the Skynet system, which alerted the authorities to anyone ‘suspected’ of acting against state policies. (Image: UC Berkeley via flickr CC0 1.0)

Beijing had even sent 1 million Uyghurs to internment camps so as to brainwash them into accepting Party ideology over their religious faith. The incident had garnered widespread condemnation and highlighted how China’s Skynet system was being used to oppress and subjugate people.

To allow the creation and maintenance of a system that would be used to crush people’s opinions would be against the human rights policies of Western democracies. This is why many in the West sanctioned against sending components to China. And though this will not stop Beijing from widening and strengthening Skynet, the sanctions have at least put a soft brake on its ambitions.

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