Government Surveillance with SIM cards & apps

by George Lovell | | 0 comments

In China, all mobile phone users are required to submit facial recognition scans when registering a new SIM card.

The ministry justifies this policy as a safety measure in accordance with cybersecurity and antiterrorism campaigns. Critics on the other hand describe it as another step towards a dystopian surveillance state. 

You can use an eSIM in your mobile phone anywhere in the world, except China, where the technology is banned.

Logically, eSIM makes it easier for the network provider to track the user because the SIM is embedded in a chip inside the phone which cannot be easily removed like a physical SIM. I would suggest that eSIM technology simply does not fit with the Chinese government's current means and infrastructure that is in place for tracking its citizens, thus it remains outlawed. Exactly why it doesn't would require a deep dive and some speculation.

This is just one example of mass surveillance in China. The government have long been using digital technologies to monitor its citizens. Though many extreme examples presented by loopy conspiracists are often false or overblown, there are plenty of astonishing cases of covert surveillance that are grounded in evidence:

2005: The Chinese government created a mass surveillance system called Skynet. The government revealed Skynet's existence in 2013, by which time the network included over 20 million cameras. In addition to monitoring the general public, cameras were installed outside mosques i
n the Xinjiang region, temples in Tibet, and the homes of dissidents.

2017: The Chinese government encouraged the use of various mobile phone apps as part of a broader surveillance push. Local regulators launched mobile apps for national security purposes which allow citizens to report violations.

2018: Surveillance mechanisms include mass camera surveillance on the streets, internet surveillance, and newly invented surveillance methods based on social credit and identity.
The government also adopted facial recognition technology, surveillance drones, robot police, and big data collection targeting online social media platforms to monitor its citizens.

2019: It was estimated the Skynet system had over 200 million monitoring CCTV cameras, making it the largest video surveillance system in the world. One industry researcher estimated that there were approximately 416 million surveillance cameras in China.

See how your facial scans determine your allocation of toilet paper in this fascinating and harrowing piece by Vice:

The Health Code smartphone app has been used to digitize medical records and track people's health status. Unfortunately, it has also been used to control the movement of protestors - enabling the police force to track down and arrest those that publicly oppose government establishments.

See this Financial Times article, "Digital Handcuffs", to learn how the COVID-tracing app has been misused:

It's difficult to determine whether and to what extent the government should take such measures to protect its citizens. It's also a question of how effective it is - I think that most people would be willing to sacrifice some degree of privacy if it was a necessary component in making them genuinely safer. But how can one be certain of a governm
ent's intentions? I struggle to recall or imagine a scenario where a government encroaching on its citizens' privacy or autonomy increases their safety and well-being. Whilst the extent of surveillance in the UK does not come close to that of China, people are becoming increasingly willing to forego their privacy in exchange for the technology and platforms that support our work, personal and social lives.

We choose to share our data with private organisations who can utilise it themselves and/or sell it on to other organisations with an aim to generate revenue. A necessary cost of doing business? Perhaps. Creepy - but only if you stop and think about it (which we don't). Still, seems like a far better deal than having all of our data in the hands of a central government with no option to opt-out. Sorry, China.

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