Being called out by the People’s Republic of China for illicit surveillance is a bit like being accused of swindling by Charles Ponzi.
Chinese state media seized on a recent report based on a two-year exhaustive study by the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law that revealed the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is the latest federal agency to buy vast quantities of Americans’ personal data from utilities and state motor vehicle departments.
As PPSA has previously reported, the Center on Privacy and Technology found that ICE has used facial recognition technology to search the driver’s license photographs of 1 in 3 adults in the United States. ICE has access to the driver’s license data of 3 in 4 American adults and tracks the movements of cars in cities that are home to nearly 3 in 4 adults. And when adults in our country connect to gas, electricity, phone or internet service, ICE will automatically pick up the new addresses of 3 out of 4 Americans.
“The U.S. is the No. 1 empire in hacking, eavesdropping and stealing secrets,” said Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Monday. “This is an irrefutable fact and a brilliant satire of the U.S. boasting about human rights, the rule of law and rules.”
That is rich. China has installed a pervasive national system that uses artificial intelligence to weave together cameras in public and private spaces, facial recognition, sound recorders with voice recognition, and Orwellian “social credit scores” to create what scholars call the Chinese Panopticon.
It is galling to be attacked for abuses by a regime that keeps its citizens under such pervasive surveillance. But the hypocrisy of China’s bee sting does not quite pull out the stinger.
In the United States, at least 16 U.S. federal agencies and 75 local and state agencies employ “stingray” devices that mimic cell towers to compromise the information in cellphones within wide areas. As many as 3,000 local and state agencies rely on facial recognition technology. Federal agencies routinely sidestep the Fourth Amendment requirement to obtain a probable cause warrant to scan our personal information by purchasing it from shadowy, private data brokers.
And when all else fails, U.S. intelligence agencies claim to be able to perform any surveillance they deem necessary for national security not under any law, but under a presidential directive, Executive Order 12333.
Much of this information is used by the government to catch illegal aliens, predatory criminals, terrorists, and spies (most of them, by the way, from China). None of it will be used to put ethnic minorities in concentration camps, imprison men and women of conscience for challenging the regime’s lack of democracy, or grade us on our willingness to scroll through the Dear Leader’s turgid thoughts.
But we should take stock – the state of surveillance in the United States is a lot more like China’s than we’d like to admit. Absent reasonable legal reforms and guidelines, we could well be on our way to a Chinese Panopticon-light.