How China surveils the world

China doesn’t only collect enormous amounts of data on its own citizens: it also sucks up data from around the world that might one day be useful for its national security, using both domestic and foreign companies as conduits. Samantha Hoffman of the Australian Strategy Policy Institute, one of the leading experts on the Chinese surveillance state, shed light on this phenomenon last year with a report, “Engineering Global Consent,” that focuses on GTCOM, one of the state-owned firms at the heart of China’s global data-gathering strategy. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: How does the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) collect data?

A: The data used by the Party comes in many forms, including text, images, video, and audio. Inside China, accessing this data is straightforward. To get access to global data, the Party uses state-owned enterprises, both Chinese and foreign tech firms, and partners such as university researchers. 

The CCP doesn’t only collect data through invasive surveillance technologies like cameras that employ facial recognition. It also relies on technologies that provide everyday services, like devices associated with smart cities. Long before AI or “big data” became buzzwords, the Party’s intent was to co-opt—not simply coerce—society to participate in its own control. 

Q: What is the CCP doing with all of this data? 

A: The CCP collects data in bulk and worries about what to do with it later. Even if it’s not all immediately usable, the Party anticipates better technical ability to exploit the data later on. 

Large data sets can reveal patterns and trends in human behavior, which help the CCP with intelligence and propaganda as well as surveillance. Some of that data is fed into tools such as the social credit system. Bulk data, like images and voice data, can also be used to train algorithms for facial and voice recognition.