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China is using AI to stalk its citizens and predict future crimes. What could possibly go wrong?

Back in December 2021, COVID-19 deaths in South Korea had hit a record high when former Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum admitted that the country could be forced to take “extraordinary measures” to tackle the surge. The plans included the use of AI and facial recognition by leveraging thousands of closed-circuit video cameras to track citizens infected with the virus.

At the time, the public raised several concerns about the technology’s attack on privacy and consent. Is the exchange of personal data for convenience, order and safety a fair trade-off for citizens? Or are governments using the pandemic as an excuse to normalise surveillance?

Now, reports are surfacing that the police in China are buying technology that harnesses vast surveillance data to predict crime and protests before they happen. What’s worse is that the systems in question are targeting potential troublemakers in the eyes of an algorithm and the Chinese authorities—including not only citizens with a criminal past but also vulnerable groups like ethnic minorities, migrant workers, people with a history of mental illness and those diagnosed with HIV.

According to a New York Times (NYT) report, more than 1.4 billion people living in China are being recorded by police cameras that are installed everywhere from street corners and subway ceilings to hotel lobbies and apartment buildings. Heck, even their phones are being tracked, their purchases monitored and their online chats censored. “Now, even their future is under surveillance,” the publication noted.

The latest generation of technology is capable of warning the police if a drug user makes too many calls to the same number or a victim of a fraud travels to Beijing to petition the government for payment. “They can signal officers each time a person with a history of mental illness gets near a school,” NYT added.

Procurement details and other documents reviewed by the publication also highlighted how the technology extends the boundaries of social and political control and incorporates them ever deeper into people’s lives. “At their most basic, they justify suffocating surveillance and violate privacy, while in the extreme they risk automating systemic discrimination and political repression,” the report mentioned.

In 2020, authorities in southern China allegedly denied a woman’s request to shift to Hong Kong to be with her husband after software warned them that the marriage was suspicious. An investigation later revealed that the two were “not often in the same place at the same time and had not spent the Spring Festival holiday together.” The police then concluded that the marriage had been faked to obtain a migration permit.

So, given the fact that Chinese authorities don’t require warrants to collect personal information, how can we know the future has been accurately predicted if the police intervene before it even happens? According to experts, even if the software fails to deduce human behaviour, it can be considered ‘successful’ since the surveillance itself helps curb unrest and crime to a certain extent.

“This is an invisible cage of technology imposed on society,” said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher with Human Rights Watch. “The disproportionate brunt of it being felt by groups of people that are already severely discriminated against in Chinese society.”

In 2017, entrepreneur Yin Qi, who founded an artificial intelligence start-up called Megvii, first introduced a computer system capable of predicting crimes. At the time, he told Chinese state media that if cameras detected a person spending hours at a stretch on a train station, the system could flag a possible pickpocket.

Fast forward to 2022, the police in Tianjin have reportedly bought software made by Hikvision, a Megvii competitor that aims to predict protests. At its core, the system collects data of Chinese petitioners—a general term used to describe people who try to file complaints about local officials with higher authorities in the country. The model then analyses each of these citizens’ likelihood to petition based on their social and family relationships, past trips and personal situations to help authorities create individual profiles—with fields for officers to describe the temperament of the protester, including “paranoid,” “meticulous” and “short tempered.”

“It would be scary if there were actually people watching behind the camera, but behind it is a system,” Qi told state media back in 2017. “It’s like the search engine we use every day to surf the internet—it’s very neutral. It’s supposed to be a benevolent thing.” He also went on to add that with such surveillance, “the bad guys have nowhere to hide.”

China’s war on ‘electronic drugs’: is online gaming an addiction risk for teenagers?

Gaming has come a long way since the pass-and-play sessions of Crash Bandicoot on the PS2. As technology has evolved, so has the gaming industry. The online gaming industry, in particular, is practically unrecognisable from its predecessors. No longer is gaming a niche hobby, it’s a multimillion-dollar industry rivalling Hollywood in terms of its outreach and sheer popularity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in China, where the Chinese games market is set to reach a value of 35 billion dollars in 2021. According to ISFE, the average gamer is now 31 years old. However, China believes online gaming is “destroying a generation”—likening the hobby to “opium” when it comes to its addictiveness.

Online gaming firms dubbed as “electronic drugs”

Two of China’s biggest online gaming firms, Tencent and NetEase, have had their shares fall more than 10 per cent in early Hong Kong trade after a Chinese state media outlet called online gaming “electronic drugs.” The stigmatisation—portrayed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state-run media—is not a new phenomenon. According to the BBC, investors have become “increasingly concerned” about Beijing cracking down on online gaming firms. It comes after authorities in the country announced a series of measures to tighten their grip on technology and private education companies over the recent months.

An article, written by the state-run publication Economic Information Daily, stated that many teenagers have become addicted to online gaming—thus having a negative impact on them. It also cited that students would play Tencent’s popular game Honor of Kings for up to eight hours a day and suggested there should be more curbs on the industry. “No industry, no sport, can be allowed to develop in a way that will destroy a generation,” the article went on to argue, likening the online gaming industry to “spiritual opium.”

Since the removal of the article from the publication’s account on WeChat, both firms’ shares have recovered. However, the article has changed the face of online gaming in China as we know it. In response to the claims, Tencent has announced its plans to introduce measures that will reduce children’s access to, and time spent on, its Honor of Kings game—the firm also hinted that it will eventually roll out such policies on all of its games.

Add this to the growing list of new measures Tencent is implementing in a bid to stop minors from becoming “addicted to online games.” It was only in 2019 when the firm—the biggest game company in the world—announced it would roll out facial recognition technology that will scan gamers faces every evening in order to catch minors breaking a gaming curfew and helping to prevent video game addiction. Dystopian or a valid measure to prevent addiction? I’ll let you decide.

Gaming addiction is a legitimate problem

So is video game addiction actually a problem? China seems to think so. Prevention of video game addiction is literally the law of the land. It’s been an aspect of the law that has been evolving over the past decade or so—recently, however, it’s hit some important milestones. China introduced a law that banned minors from playing video games between 10 pm and 8 am, or for playing more than 90 minutes on a weekday in 2019. A moment of silence, please, for the teenagers in China who have been robbed from sneaking to the family PC in the dead of night to get their League of Legends fix.

Jokes aside, China hasn’t been the only culture to wake up to the harmful damage video game addiction can cause to children. Albeit, they’ve been the only ones to implement measures that many in the West would consider Draconian. Video game addiction has recently been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a psychiatric ‘handbook’ used to list all mental health disorders and diagnose them appropriately. The condition ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ is listed up there with gambling addiction and substance addiction. Research has also suggested how 1 to 16 per cent of video gamers meet the criteria for addiction—when unaddressed, such an addiction could have a detrimental impact on mental health and work or social life.

But isn’t straight-up banning minors from gaming at night a bit overkill? Many would argue yes. It’s a two-way street: I’m inclined to believe that taking such measures is a narrow-minded response to the problem. In fact, gaming can bring many positive benefits in terms of mental health and allowing people to socialise with others—which is particularly important, now more than ever, in the era of pandemic-induced lockdowns.

Of course, addiction is a serious mental health disorder and should be addressed accordingly. However, stripping every teenager the ability to game for longer than 90 minutes to prevent cases of addiction seems to be somewhat harsh. There are people out there addicted to mac and cheese, should we put a limit on that too? Ultimately, there will be people who agree and disagree. As new technology evolves, so will the gaming industry. How we will face this change, and the problems it brings, is still up for debate.