China uses ‘traffic light’ to monitor journalists

James Clayton
North America technology reporter


Henan in China is currently building a surveillance network with facial scanning technology for journalists and other people of concern.

BBC News obtained documents that described a system which classifies journalists in a traffic-light system, green, amber, and red.

They say that journalists in the red category will be dealt with “as appropriate”.

A request to comment was not received by the Henan Public Security Bureau.

These documents were discovered by IPVM surveillance analysts and outline plans for monitoring other people of concern, including migrants women and foreign students.

Human Rights Watch stated that “This government does not need more power to monitor more people… particularly those trying to hold it responsible peacefully.”

‘Thematic libraries’

These documents were published 29 July as part of a tendering procedure, which encouraged Chinese companies to submit bids for the contract to construct the system. The contract was won by NeuSoft on 17 September.

BBC News has yet to receive a comment from NeuSoft

To alert authorities when an “individual of concern” is detected, the system also includes facial-recognition technology that’s linked to Henan’s many cameras.

People of concern would be added to “thematic libraries”, which are already populated with information and photos about the people of the province.

It would be possible to connect the system with China’s national databases.

‘Key concern’

Journalists, both foreign and domestic, are a group of concern for the Henan Public Security Bureau.

The documents state that the preliminary suggestion is to divide key journalists in three categories.

People marked in red should be considered a key concern.

The second, yellow-colored, level is for people who are of general concern.

“Level 3 – Marked in green, are reserved for journalists who don’t pose a danger to the public.

An alert will be activated as soon as journalists of concern, marked “red” or “yellow” in the event they have been charged with a crime, book a flight to enter the province.

It would also evaluate foreign students and classify them in three risk categories: “excellent foreign student, general staff, key persons, and unstable personnel”.

According to the documents, “The safety assessment focuses on foreign students’ daily attendance, their exam results and whether they came from key countries.”

Schools would have to inform authorities about students who are concerned about security.

Those considered of concern will be followed.

When it was politically sensitive, for example, the National People’s Congress annual meeting, the “wartime alarm mechanism” would activated. Tracking of students of “key concern” will be increased, as well as tracking their phones.

This document outlines a wish for the system’s information to be taken from:

  • Cell phones
  • Social media, such as WeChat & Weibo
  • vehicle details
  • hotel stays
  • travel tickets
  • Proprietary ownership
  • Photos (from databases already in existence)

This should be a focus area for “stranded woman”, which is a non-Chinese immigrant female who does not have the legal right to stay in China.

Many Chinese women travel to China in search of work.

Some others were trafficked from countries nearby.

This would include the National Immigration Bureau (NIB), the Ministry of Public Security, and Henan Police, among other organizations.

These documents were made public at the same time that the Chinese government criticized foreign media outlets’ coverage of the Henan flooding.

Conor Healy (Government Director, IPVM) stated that “The technical architecture for mass surveillance in China is still poorly understood… however, the development of custom surveillance technology to speed state suppression of journalists’ activities is new.”

These documents reveal what China’s officials in public security want out of mass surveillance.

China is believed to have already implemented its facial recognition system in China.

And last year, the Washington Post reported Huawei had tested artificial-intelligence software that could recognise people belonging to the Uighur ethnic minority and alert police.

Sophie Richardson, China Director of Human Rights Watch, stated that the goal was to chill. This will ensure that everybody knows that they are monitored and can be contacted if necessary.


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