China Takes Another Step into '1984'

Buying a cellphone in the U.S. can be a complicated business. First you have to decide: Feature phone, Android, or iPhone? Then there's the credit check hassle, picking the right data plan, deciphering the contract, and setting up your payment plan. Buying a cellphone in Communist China is probably just as complicated, and as of Sunday, phone buyers must also submit to a government-mandated 3-D facial scan.

Quartz reported on Sunday that Beijing claims that the mandatory face scans "protect the legitimate rights and interest of citizens in cyberspace," and that "artificial intelligence and other technical methods" would be applied to ensure a perfect match of citizen subject to SIM card. Now, when Chinese walk the streets of their own cities, the ever-present surveillance cameras will have no problem matching their faces to the phones in their pockets -- the location of which is already known.

It's one more brick in the wall the Chinese Communist Party has been building to safeguard its power and privileges. In fact, the facial scanning mandate might just be the biggest and strongest brick. Totalitarian regimes collapse, in part, because oppression is inefficient. Beijing means to fix that, using the power of networked computing and big data. The problem is that while it's comparatively easy to build giant data centers, it's much more difficult gathering reliable data.

Let me give you a real-world example you might already be familiar with.

Way back in the olden times of 2012, Apple decided to ditch the popular Google Maps app (then pre-installed on every iPhone) with a homegrown app of its own. Apple had grown frustrated with Google for a couple of reasons. The first was that Google reserved the best Maps features for Android users, giving them a competitive advantage over iPhones. The second was Google's privacy policies regarding user data, or rather Google's complete lack thereof. So Apple launched iOS 6 with its own Maps, blithely unaware of how bad it was going to turn out.

Do you remember the disaster that was the launch of Apple's own Maps app? Millions of users were justifiably outraged when they upgraded to iOS 6 that the perfectly nice Google Maps had been replaced by Apple Maps -- which sucked. The Verge reported at the time that the release of iOS 6 "was immediately followed by users complaining about the new maps, which lack a significant amount of detail and omit public transit direction." The same story also noted that "map detail might be lacking in some American cities, but London, Beijing, and Tokyo are virtually blank, and several major landmarks are labeled inaccurately or wildly misplaced."

But the problem wasn't with Apple's Map app. The app was fine, really. Maybe not as fully-featured as Google's offering, but it got all the basic functions right in an attractive and easy-to-understand way. The problem is that the data was no good.

Apple didn't do public beta tests in those days; they just gave out sample phones to trusted Apple employees, who tried out the new Maps around the Bay Area. Their Bay Area data was just fine, so nobody noticed during beta just how bad the data made Maps look literally everywhere else. It took years to undo the public relations damage.

Back to China.

Beijing doesn't give a rat's behind about public opinion, so long as the locals stay in line. The question is: How do you keep them in line when there's so much official corruption, economic mismanagement, and political oppression? Well, you've got to keep a close eye on things, or better yet, get the people to keep a very close eye on one another. George Orwell understood this perfectly well when he published 1984 in 1948, and Beijing understands the need for total surveillance even better today.

If you're Chinese President Xi Jinping, or a wanna-be Big Brother (but I repeat myself), it's pretty easy to build a surveillance state. Stick cameras everywhere, build some data farms, steal or license software from some American firms with questionable morals, and you're good to go.

Well, you're almost good to go.

The next thing you need is a reporting app, so that each and every Chinese subject can become a good little Stasi agent, eagerly reporting their neighbors and coworkers for various "social" offenses. As I reported previously, that system is already being put into place:

In China, it's becoming common for subjects of the Communist state's growing digital apparatus to be denied air travel or business class train tickets, have their internet bandwidth throttled, have their kids denied admission to better schools, denied employment in certain sectors, or even have their dogs taken away. It's called "social credit," it's kept track of digitally and with zero transparency, and Beijing is trotting it out in stages by 2020 as a sort-of kinder, gentler totalitarianism.

Think of it as a digital Stasi. Your neighbor catches you smoking in a non-smoking area, and reports on you with his phone. The state telecom notices you're spending too much time playing online videogames. Your latest social media post gets too many downvotes. Or maybe someone at work you're having problems with just makes something up. It could be almost anything, but once your social credit score turns negative, your life can become a living hell, and with no legal recourse. You'll have to become a conspicuously good little Communist to turn your credit positive again.

Or as the government itself says, "Keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful."

Beijing began installing its social credit system in 2014, and it is expected to be complete -- countrywide -- sometime in 2020. The final piece of the puzzle is the one Apple forgot about in 2012: Make sure your data is solid and complete.

Enter mandated facial scanning.

Every Chinese who updates his cellular service will have a 3-D mathematical model of his face uploaded into China's massive surveillance system. Combined with "social credit," it will be damn near impossible for anyone to get away with anything. Worse than sci-fi notions of jailing people for "precrime," the Chinese system reduces people's private space to virtually nil. Everything is recorded, and the algorithms connecting individuals to actions will be unbeatable for a regime as brutal as Xi's.

You've probably read reports of how China uses similar electronic terror to oppress its Uighur minority in its distant Xinjiang province. We're witnessing the establishment of a kinder, gentler version of total digital oppression on a national scale to ethnic Chinese.

Maybe Xi's total surveillance state means the end of any hope for political reform. Maybe it's a symptom of a regime so paranoid about its future that it will invite the very unrest it's trying to squash. But I do know that if history is any guide, Communist regimes always appear invincible right up until they collapse.