REUTERS – Recently a small group of Chinese residents were sitting outside in the town of Chengdu. A small drone approached them, hovered nearby and began to speak.
“Playing mahjong outside is banned during the epidemic,” said a voice from the drone. “You have been spotted. Stop playing and leave the site as soon as possible.” “Don’t look at the drone, child,” it continued. “Ask your father to leave immediately.”
For many in the rest of the world, what China’s Global Times described as a “creative use” of drones to tackle its coronavirus outbreak may still sound like a scene from a futuristic dystopia. Those in power in Beijing, however, clearly view it as something to be proud of. The video was shared widely on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and showcased in its English-language media for consumption abroad.
It was, perhaps, an indicator of two important things. First, not only is China keen to use all means at its disposal to contain the coronavirus outbreak, but it may well use it to harden, strengthen and demonstrate the growing capabilities of the most sophisticated surveillance state the world has ever known.
Second, of course, it demonstrates the proliferation of sophisticated, smaller unmanned vehicles and platforms as a tool for mass surveillance — as well as outright social control. That’s a trend likely to be seen well beyond the world’s more authoritarian states, and it is that one democracies will need to have a much more public and accessible conversation about than they have managed so far.
The uses for often already overstretched law enforcement and other security services are obvious. Last week, two people were stabbed in London by a recently released extremist, raising questions about the ability of authorities to keep track of individuals deemed risky. Automated technology solutions such as facial recognition software make that easier, but clearly also unsettle many.
In the United States, several towns and cities including Oakland and Berkeley in California and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have outright banned the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement. Other states and locations are considering tighter controls — but across much of the rest of the United States and Western world, surveillance technology continues to be rolled out, sometimes largely unnoticed and unchallenged.
Much larger unmanned weapons-carrying drones have been at the center of U.S. operations in the Middle East and beyond for years. Where the U.S. has led, China has often followed. Beijing is a major supplier of large armed drones to countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, frustrated by limits on U.S. drone exports. The next revolution, however, looks to involve much smaller drones that while less lethal, can also be a much more intrusive presence.
In August last year, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency demonstrated a drone swarm at Fort Benning, Georgia, that used largely off-the-shelf technology to autonomously locate, find and monitor a specified object in a particular building — a city hall — in a U.S. military training complex. The aim is for swarms of up to 250 devices to be able to operate largely independently or controlled by a single operator, providing a level of mobile surveillance and coordination not previously available.
For now, the Chinese example demonstrates the limitations of that technology. Beijing has been pouring resources into drone and surveillance technology for decades. In 2018, the South China Morning Post reported on the development of flocks of unmanned aircraft designed to resemble birds such as doves in both appearance and movement. Such devices, it said, have already seen service along China’s borders and in its north-western Xinjiang province, where a crackdown on Muslim minority ethnic Uighurs has long been a testbed for Beijing’s surveillance state.
These devices, it said, have proved convincing enough that they can be flown over flocks of sheep — normally very sensitive to aircraft — without the animals determining their true nature. In the long run, Beijing almost certainly wants to match that technology with its other surveillance tools — widespread static cameras, and a colossal facial identification database the state has been building since 2015. Other tools reportedly developed by China include systems to identify people by their distinctive walking gaits.
The surveillance drones in the Global Times videos, however, are clearly under the control of individual human operators, their voices broadcast by loudspeaker. Another video from Jiangsu province, eastern China, showed a policewoman using a drone to check passengers at a crossing wearing masks. “The handsome guy who is on the phone, where is your mask? Put it on please,” she said through its loudspeaker. “The girls who were eating food while walking, put on your masks please. You can eat when you arrive at home.”
It’s a reminder that for all its investment in technology, like previous mass surveillance states such as East Germany, China remains dependent on using humans to watch other humans. That, however, is changing very quickly. Artificial intelligence algorithms, combined with the colossally larger data trails humans leave, has already proved a game changer when it comes to targeted advertising. License plate recognition cameras mean most vehicles in most countries have their locations recorded sometimes dozens of times a day.
According to the Global Times, China’s citizens viewed the Chengdu footage as useful entertainment while they stayed inside following the cancellation of Lunar New Year festivities. Whether that is true is another question — but it’s an issue that the rest of the world may also find itself grappling with sooner than it thinks.
Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is the founder of the Project for Study of the 21st Century think tank.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.