A Chilling Personal Account Paints a Stark Picture of the Unsettling China-to-America Surveillance Pipeline

Posted on December 12, 2021

A recent piece in the MIT Technology Review paints a vivid and alarming picture of how oppressive Chinese surveillance technology is creeping into free Western nations, with the US leading the way. Excerpting a new book by Darren Byler entitled In The Camps: China‚Äôs High-Tech Penal Colony, the piece chronicles the story of Vera Zhang, a Chinese student caught in the Chinese state’s sprawling surveillance complex in 2017. Some of the same tools that Zhang and other ethnic minorities in China are routinely subjected to, though, are now being snapped up by American companies as COVID controls.

Solely through monitoring her digital behavior, Zhang was detained without trial and forced to submit to state dogma and more intimate monitoring in order to regain her freedom and return to school in the West. She was designated as a “pre-criminal” for using a VPN, in violation of China’s “internet security law”, to access her US university’s Google email account. Since Google is not permitted to operate in China, using a VPN to create an encrypted connection to a free country’s region of the Internet is the only way Chinese students like Zhang can access their accounts while home during school breaks. For doing so, she was placed in a detainment camp for months without trial. She was watched at all times in the camp by security cameras’ watchful lenses.

Upon release, her phone was seized and stripped of Western apps before being returned to her, a process which could well have resulted in the installation of spyware on her device as well. She was also subject to closer digital snooping, as she found out in 2019 when she saw her face picked out on a video feed at a police station–overlaid on the screen was a catalog of personal information on her.

Harrowing as Zhang’s experience is, what’s more horrifying is how quickly and unreservedly American companies are embracing the same technology used in the suppression of Zhang and other ethnic minorities like her. According to the book excerpt, the same Chinese companies that honed their AI and machine learning algorithms on Hui, Uighurs, and Kazakhs in China have fulfilled huge orders from American companies. For instance, Chinese thermal camera manufacturers Dahua and Megvii have sold thousands of cameras to American companies for use to detect COVID in their workforces. And while sales by American companies to these Chinese firms is barred, American companies’ purchase of this tech is not. Thus, not only are American employees being subject to the same surveillance tech used to hound ethnic minorities in China, but their employers’ dollars are enabling the tech’s Chinese manufacturers to further their work.

You can read the full article from the MIT Technology Review here.