How Big Data Is Transforming The Chinese Government And What It Means For Its Citizens

An application that can predict traffic jam up to forty minutes before it happens seems like a great tool, but how would you like it if the same model allows a government to predict how and when crowds will congregate? A Siri reminder of your two o’clock meeting is convenient, but how do you like the government sending you a text message reminding you of an inconsistency they found in your tax filling? Big data, one of the magical tools of our time, has turned these scenarios into reality and is transforming government power. The important question is: are citizens better off?

Since 2010 Beijing’s municipal government has started implementing what is called a “Crowd Risk Early Warning System” in several major business districts and public spaces including Tianan Men Square. Based primarily on images and video footage from on-site cameras, the system analyzes the density, distribution, and flow of crowds with facial recognition technology and can produce warnings of overcrowding thirty minutes ahead of time. The information will then be used to staff public security forces accordingly to prevent dangers such as stampedes. To compensate for blind spots in case cameras are not properly installed, GPS data from the nearest operating stations are also collected. The system now claims to predict the total population and peak time of crowds a day in advance.

Although the system is intended to prevent the dangerous overcrowding — a common and lethal occurrence during major Chinese holidays — it is not difficult to imagine this tool being used to break up peaceful rallies and activities even before they take place. Left unchecked, big data applications like this could be a tool that substantially expands government power over citizens.

An Aggressive Big Data Campaign

Starting late in the game, the Chinese government eagerly embraces big data — large volumes of data in various formats that is being generated at a fast velocity — and invests heavily in this industry. On September 5th, the State Council released guidelines to strengthen and facilitate the growth of big data technologies. Besides providing the policy support for industrial innovation and research, it outlined three main tasks for implementing big data strategies within the government: open government data sharing, integrating data sources, and enhancing governance capacity.

Provincial and municipal governments everywhere are coming up with their own big data strategies. According to a researcher who helped draft the 5th 13-year plan, “many local authorities that plan to build big data industry parks are building data centers, while others are exploring ways of achieving better integration and sharing of data within the government.

In Tianjin, the municipal government plans to cultivate a new generation of information technology companies in big data and cloud computing to form a complete industrial chain in three years. It estimates the output to reach 20 billion yuan (~3.2 billion dollars), driving the total output of information industry to 140 billion yuan (~20.6 billion dollars) in 2017.

For the majority of local government bodies — most of which do not have a robust technology industry like Tianjin’s — the main tasks remain building and integrating the existing data infrastructures. By pooling sources of data onto a single platform, these measures aim to ease administrative processes and improve government services. The cross of information among various agencies allows the government to construct a fuller picture of an individual.

Source: Southern Daily Newspaper, Provided by Foshan Local Tax Bureau. A sample text stating “Dear taxpayer, according to the analysis, your company’s washing service does not match the term on the self-issued invoice. Please issue the invoice correctly. If you need purchase service invoice please contact the local tax bureau. ”

In one case, the government is using the increasing data they collect on the citizens to track down tax evaders. In Foshan city, Guangdong Province, where 1200 staff manage the taxes of 260,000 residents, the local tax bureau is using big data to detect tax fraud. The analytic system uses internal as well as external data sources. The internal data include all the historical data on tax registration, financial statements, taxpayer self-reported information, etc. External data comes from twenty-nine other bureaus including the bureau of industry and commerce, national tax, national land planning and housing construction, and so on. The system also uses data from the Internet, although the source is not specified. If there is an inconsistency between, for example, a property purchase and taxes filed, a text message will be automatically generated and sent to the individual on behalf of the local tax bureau requesting further actions.

In a test run on 2.26 million tax-related records, 240,000 were red flagged. This demonstrates the government’s increasingly sophisticated approach to big data and enhanced capacity for law enforcement.

Are Citizens Better Off?

While big data allows the government agencies to enforce the laws and regulations more efficiently, it also poses potential danger to the citizens’ legitimate interest of privacy since it is much easier to identify and learn everything about one individual from a central source. In a 2014 report titled “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values” to the White House, the Director of Office of Science and Technology Policy and others stated “big data unquestionably increases the potential of government power to accrue unchecked”. To understand how China’s legislation fails to protect the interests of its citizens, it helps to juxtapose it with the situation in the US.

While most legislation focuses on regulating the information that private companies can collect and utilize, few rules apply to the government. If it was not for Edward Snowden, the N.S.A’s mass surveillance program would have carried on for years. After the breach, technology companies such as Google, Facebook, AT&T, and Apple all claimed to tighten their information security and to make technical changes to thwart government spying. It has become so ironic that companies that are restricted from collecting excessive amounts of personal information by law are now defending their users from the government is supposed to enforce this legislation. Without proper legal protection of privacy and data security, surveillance perpetuates under the name of protection and services.

The Chinese government seems to have little interest in limiting its own capabilities with regard to the usage of data. The general rules concerning information security include the constitution and The Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Strengthening the Network Information Protection. However, “it has not enacted a single piece of legislation that specifically addresses the collection, storage, transmission and operation of personal information.” The legislation is mostly sector specific and lacks a comprehensive, consistent, and clear framework that governs the collection and usage of data. There is no specific requirement for notification or registration with a governmental authority before processing data. There is no single entity that specifically deals with data security, which greatly obfuscates responsibilities. Because of the lack of transparency, although a great deal of information is being collected on citizens, they can hardly monitor the process and hold the parties involved accountable.

On 15 March 2015, the State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC) published the Measures for Punishments against Infringements on Consumer Rights and Interests, the latest sector-based legislation on the collecting of consumer data. However, a close examination of this specific legislation still reveals its failure to protect consumer privacy. One prominent problem is the lack of specific definitions. Although consent is required for the collection and use of an individual’s personal information, there is no detailed requirement regarding the specific form or content of the consent, or whether consent can be implied or inferred.

What is more alarming is that no big businesses seem to have a clean record of not complying with administrative mandates under political pressure. In the private sector, the big data business is spear-headed by BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent), the three largest internet companies in China controlling if not monopolizing the search, e-commerce, and social networking application markets. Baidu is notorious for censoring politically sensitive terms search results. It is questionable how effective they are in protecting user privacy. The subject of data security and protection may fall into yet another gray area where the public and private boundaries become unclear.

Source: Baidu Map. Baidu Map can provide live heat map of crowd density in popular sights in major cities. This screen shot is taken on the public access portal. Professional services are packaged and can be purchased by companies and governments.

What further puts Chinese citizens at disadvantage is the asymmetry of information: while the government knows a lot about its citizens, the citizens have limited knowledge about and few control over what government data is shared with the public. Private enterprises and citizens are asking more open public information. In a study conducted by China Academy of Information and Communication Technology, only 18% of the companies use government open data. The most requested data fields including industry, social security, education and research, municipal management, labor, and employment. The value of the open data diminishes greatly to the public if they are not interesting and can be accessed easily in usable forms.

Big data is improving businesses, simplifying administrative processes, and changing everyday life. It also helps the government accrue power at an accelerated rate. Not having a comprehensive and transparent legal framework and an administrative entity that governs the collection and usage of public information in China poses great threats to the privacy and security of its citizens. It also prevents the public from harnessing the power of public information that is crucial to balance and check the power of the government.

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