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Under Surveillance: Q&A With Naomi Klein

Rolling Stone, May 29, 2008

In Issue 1053, Naomi Klein examines China's surveillance industry and how with the help of U.S. contractors, China is building the prototype for a high-tech police state. Here she speaks with Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson about her experiences writing and reporting the story and its implications for America.

How did that trip to China come about and what was it like to be able to report on the security industrial complex of China while being in the heart of it?

The story came out of an interview that I did with [Rolling Stone Managing Editor] Will Dana when he asked me about how China fits into the series in my book, The Shock Doctrine. In my book I'm looking at homeland security as a global industry. I didn't see this just as a China story, I'm worried about how this is going to affect the kind of surveillance that is being put in place in the U.S. and Canada and all over the place. I just said, "You should really send someone to Shenzhen to do this story." So he said, "Well, you should do the story."

In terms of getting access to the companies, it was really hard because that New York Times series that Keith Bradsher did that was so great had real ramifications for the security industry in China. The commerce department announced that they were going to have hearings or take submissions on whether these companies are actually in violation of the law that prevents the export of technology that can be used for policing to China. Through various contacts I found out about Thomas Lee, who is not from mainland China, his family is in Hong Kong, but he is fluently trilingual and also a great photographer. The main thing I needed was someone who could translate for me, so Thomas and I went together and muddled our way through and got some pictures as a bonus.

I was particularly curious as to how you found Pixel Solutions as the licensee of the L-1 technology.

It was a fluke. A local contact in Guangzhou, when I told them that I was investigating the surveillance industry, told me that they knew somebody who worked in that industry and I got Yao Ruoguang's phone number. After many days of getting shut down, we were literally sent on wild goose chases. Because in Shenzhen the factories don't give out their addresses, you get an address for its corporate headquarters, which is different from the factory. There's a lot of secrecy around the locations of factories because people don't want to be called out with a sweatshop story, everybody talks about the Nike problem. And every taxi driver, no matter how skilled they are, no matter how long they've lived in the city, routinely gets lost because it's just impossible to navigate because the city is building so quickly. A whole new neighborhood would crop up while you weren't paying attention and all of the landmarks will change. It's really quite something how many times we got lost.

We were calling and calling China Security and Surveillance and there was another one, China Public Security. These were the big ones that weren't returning our calls. Finally, one company gave us the address of their factory and then it turned out that they had just lied and we were driving around and realized they gave us a fake address to get us to stop calling. So that's the way it was until we got to Yao. Yao is chatty. He studied English in the U.S. He's a very unlikely security executive. He got into it because he was in the business of taking photographs of school kids. It was a phenomenon he had seen in the United States and the way he told it to me, in China, before he started doing it, it wasn't a practice to take school pictures. He thought this was a great idea and he brought it back to China. Because of this, he [started up a] company that had developed a lot of software for storing large numbers of photographs. He came into it from a commercial standpoint and then when the market for these high-tech ID cards opened up and then the facial recognition software, it was a logical extension of the photography work. But he's not a spook, he doesn't have that mentality. A lot of people in the surveillance field are ex-police, ex-military and they're a lot cagier. Yao has a commercial photography business and he'd be just as happy to talk to you about making fridge magnets of two-year olds as talking about facial recognition software.

I was struck that here you are in the middle of this Marxist/Stalinist city and the people you're talking to seem so eager to get their story out, and then you call the company in New Jersey and you get hung up on.

[Laughs] Well, because the Chinese companies are really into breaking into the U.S. homeland security market and more than that, the big trend is to get your company broken into the NASDAQ and understanding that, in order for that to work, they have to have some profile in North America. I think that's why these particular security companies opened up the door for me. Once I met Yao, he introduced me to several other colleagues who introduced me to other colleagues. And then suddenly, after banging our heads on the wall after being sent on all these wild goose chases, it changed completely and we kept getting handed over to another security executive where a black car would pull up with leather interior and we would just get in. We would be driven somewhere and we wouldn't know where we were going and it would be another factory at another company. At one point I started to get worried because even though I wasn't misrepresenting who I was, these companies were talking to me because they thought it would be good for their business, to have an article in a high-profile American publication. I was a little alarmed that these surveillance companies seemingly hadn't discovered Google, because it doesn't take all that much to find out that I'm quite critical of this whole thing.

In reporting on this, did you feel like someone was watching you?

Well, we were being photographed all the time, going in and out. Obviously there are cameras everywhere in the surveillance-camera factories and headquarters. I was given sort of VIP treatment. There was this excitement about the idea of having a Western journalist come and visit. After I visited Aebell, I told them that I really wanted to go see a factory and that's how I ended up at FSAN, because FSAN makes the cameras for Aebell. We were in Guangzhou and the head of Abell called his friend in Shenzhen and said, "There's a journalist that I think can help us, will you show her around the factory tomorrow?" And the owner of the factory showed up at our hotel the next morning and drove us to the suburbs, to his factory. The first thing he had said to me was that he was sorry that he hadn't gotten any notice because he would have made a sign welcoming me to the factory, which is what they do for guests. So I had a terrible flash of a sign saying, "Welcome, Naomi Klein."

Could you explain the link between U.S. taxpayers who are subsidizing technology and the crackdown on public dissidence in China.

The homeland security economy is not a free market. It relies almost entirely on government contracts. In the '90s you had all these startups, indentured capitalists trying to get in on the Internet boom; post-9/11 you had the same kind of phenomenon with security startups trying to get a piece of the venture capital. But the venture capital was coming from the government now, it was our money, taxpayer dollars and limitless amounts of it because the Bush administration has shown itself willing to spend far into the future to pay for the so-called War on Terror. So this is an interesting business model that they have, which is entirely dependent on who you know and political contacts and lobbying, and if you become one of the favorite companies you get access to a huge amount of taxpayer dollars to develop the technology.

One of the companies vying for these government dollars after September 11th and before was Identix, a company selling facial recognition software. In 2006, the field of biometrics consolidated greatly with the creation of this company called L-1, which represented a merger of two of the largest biometrics companies as well as a buy-up of a half a dozen smaller companies to create this mega-biometric company that would be sort of one-stop shopping, fingerprinting, iris scanning, facial recognition, and it would sell themselves that way. [Identix's head] had been getting grants from the Pentagon, I believe since 1994 as an academic researcher. Obviously these are tools, that if they work, represent a powerful law-enforcement tools and applications in warfare. So there's always a great deal of funding for this type of research. The technology that ultimately was sold through L-1 to Yao's company benefited from all of these years of public financing of taxpayer dollars.

It was striking that Pixel Solutions bought it for so little. I was surprised by that, but the more I think about it, it makes sense. The company can afford to sell it at these fairly low consumer prices seeing that so much of the overhead was paid with public dollars. When you look at the situation where Yao decides to compete in what's called "The 10 million faces test" which is being organized by the Chinese central police to see which private company has the best facial recognition software. It's a very intensive practice where each company has to sync up their software with the government's database with apparently 10 million faces and then they're given photographs, fed into their system and they have to show that their software matches for that photograph quickly and accurately because facial recognition software is notorious for making mistakes, for making false IDs. L-1 brags that they've had technological breakthroughs and that they've narrowed the number of false IDs and that's the trajectory.

The money comes from taxpayers, it funds research and development from the earliest stages, from when it's still an academic project then it gets turned into a private company, then the company merges and becomes a mega-company until that company sells for a very low amount, technology that was very expensive to produce, and then that local Chinese company hands the software over directly to the Chinese police and syncs up their system.

Who is doing all of this watching? Local police? Central government?

It's mostly local and provincial police. The idea of Golden Shield — this is certainly the obsession of the FBI at home — is integration, it's system integration and this is where all the money is and this is where all the focus is, it's not just a Chinese phenomenon. The analysis, for instance, of what went wrong on September 11th within the security field is that the attackers were on the radar, I believe of the CIA, but there wasn't information sharing, there wasn't integration. A lot of cases, this failure to integrate systems, to integrate databases has been blamed for criminals slipping through the cracks. In China, the goal of Golden Shield is that yes, you will have local police and provincial police doing the watching, but they would be tapped into a national database, a black list, and China keeps a very active black list that ultimately, you would be able to access every time your national ID card is swiped. No matter where you are, your ID card is swiped at various entry points into the country, into the workplace, wherever you install a checkpoint. If you have system integration, then a national list is integrated with a local watchdog.

What is the darkest impact of having that list?

When I was in Hong Kong I met a quite prominent human-rights activist from China, a pro-democracy activist of the '89 generation who spent many years in jail and then was released and was trying to live his life in China. He had just left mainland China because he was being denied his national ID. So they were using the new technology to drive him out of the country. Every time he went to an Internet cafe, he needed a special ID. The Internet cafe takes your national ID and then issues a card for you that's linked to your national ID, so every time you're logged onto the Internet, you're scanned and if you're on a list an alarm will go off somewhere because the alarm is linked in to local police. It's clear that it's not just the cameras feeding directly into local police; it's the computer themselves.

Internet cafes used to be a place in China where people could use the Internet with some degree of anonymity and that's really been eroded. And what this activist has been telling me was that even though he has stuck it out in China through all of these years of difficulties, because of this new technology he can't function. He was facing constant harassment. And the Chinese government would really rather people like that not be in the country. It was interesting though, because he was quite optimistic. I was like, "Do you think this technology can eliminate dissent in China, eliminate activism in China?" and he said, "No, there's just too much of it. What it can do is make life for people like me impossible, but that's because I'm high-profile and they already know me and they're already looking for me." But the real activism is happening at the village level and it's not known activists, it's this explosion of dissent of people losing their farmlands and villages to some new export zones, some new shopping malls. With 87,000 protests in one year, this is why all this new technology is being implemented. But he was quite optimistic about the limits of this technology to control that level of dissent. He said they can get rid of the high-profile trouble like me because they're looking for us, but they can't deal with this level of mass dissent.

Can you speak to complicity of U.S. business in these efforts?

That's always been the story in China: the mean government made us do it. That's also been the excuse around labor standards in China. "We would love to pay our workers more and treat them better" but you blame the local contractor and say, "This is just the way things are done in China." The context for this is that originally, the technology companies and the media companies claimed that they were going to bring democracy to China. This was the 1989 discourse, totalitarian regimes cannot survive the influx of Western media technology. Remember when fax machines were supposed to end communism? There are people that still claim that fax machines ended communism. And Rupert Murdoch very famously announced that satellite television would bring the downfall to the communist state and he very quickly changed his tune and started agreeing to censoring broadcasts in order to get access to this huge market.

So now we're in a situation where it isn't just that the companies are willing to make the compromises, it's that they are actively seeking opportunities for great profit that involve directly partnering with the state to put the people under surveillance, so it isn't just a surveillance tax or a tax that's part of doing business. In China, it is the business and it's a booming business and it's booming very quickly. It's definitely important to understand that this process has accelerated in the past year because of the Olympics. A huge amount of security systems in China right now are being installed by Western companies in the name of securing Beijing and other cities against terrorists during the Olympics. Human-rights activists have been raising the alarm for quite some time, saying, "Yes, these network surveillance cameras that companies like GE and Honeywell are selling in Beijing are going to stay after the Olympics and they will be used for domestic purposes." These warnings have really fallen on deaf ears and I think the reason for that is really quite cynical: it's just too big a market.

I was curious in terms of Honeywell and GE, do they have this more benign usage because they're being used for the Olympics and therefore not care?

It's in the name of the Olympics, but it's all outlasting the Olympics. I don't know whether they are avoiding it. What's clear is that the ban is not being enforced. All of these examples are on the line. There is a substantial lobbying effort under way from the security and surveillance industry, which has become very, very powerful in the United States, to not deny them this fast-growing market. They're using all of the usual excuses: if we don't go in, the Europeans will go in and this is an important way of closing the trade deficit between the U.S. and China. These are the arguments that are carrying the day. There is almost no investigation going on at all in any of this.

The most troubling point of your piece is that we've seem to be becoming almost a bit China-tised ourselves in terms of these technologies being implemented in our homeland.

This is what makes it all so blurry, that they're becoming more like us and we're becoming more like them. I think this urge to know as much as possible about what people are saying and writing and doing, this is something the police around the world share. They generally want as much information about people as possible. The way I put it in the piece is that there seems to be this global middle ground emerging, not to say that we are like China now, but you do have a glimpse of catching the future and of course it's the future that we've imagined many, many times in every Hollywood movie.

That's one of the weirder parts of this story — this is new, but at the same time, there's this feeling of deja vu. We saw it in CSI, we saw it in 24. We treat surveillance as mass entertainment; this is the plot line of almost every hit drama at the moment, you leave a trace everywhere, you're being watched at all times. For some reason, we think it's normal to draw our entertainment from the idea that we're under constant surveillance. Films like The Bourne Ultimatum, the first 20 minutes you see the CIA able to commandeer the eyes as they call it of every camera in London networked and locate people on their cellphone, using GPS monitoring. This is the high-tech dream. One of the things that I think is interesting is that Cisco is one of the sponsors of 24. They have their logo all over 24. They're also the company that built China's great firewall.

Has the horse left his barn? Are there policy implications to bringing this under control? Are we beyond this? Is there a real contrast between what's going on in London, Shenzhen and America?

There was just a story that came out in The Guardian last week about how despite the half a million CCTV cameras in London — and London is the world's most watched city, Shenzhen will soon surpass them — it has no impact on crime, which is pretty damning. Now what do the surveillance industry and the police have to say about that? Well, because we haven't integrated the systems enough. We need to have more facial recognition software and more surveillance and more technology because people know that the cameras aren't working so they're losing their deterrence. There's kind of a surveillance arms race that sets in. The reason why I concentrate on this as an economy is because we tend to be suspicious of whether arms companies might be in a conflict of interest. There's a conflict of interest when these security companies get involved in funding think tanks. It's interesting that General Electric has become one of the leading players in the Homeland Security sector and in the CCTV camera sector and in selling to China as well as making a great deal of equipment in American airports. They also own several of the major news networks. They are in the fear business, I think that presents some potential conflicts of interest that we should be discussing because these are companies that do better the more afraid we are, the more imperiled we feel, the more distrustful we are of one another.

Any other thoughts to leave readers with?

It's a very difficult time for China. It's been difficult timing that this piece came out in the midst of this horrific tragedy. It's not a time for China bashing. I hope people don't read the piece as China bashing; I really didn't want to go to China and do another piece about an evil communist police state. I think this is as much about us as it is about China.

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