Call it Orwellian IT. If you’re attending the Olympics: Oh, boy, is Big Brother watching you. According to Chinese authorities, the government has installed:
• Remotely controlled microphones, GPS devices and kill switches in all 70,000 Beijing taxicabs
• Microphones in many or most hotel rooms and offices
• Equipment to tap all landline and cell phone calls in China
The government is also fielding all kinds of “advanced” security technologies. For example, anti-terror police are using Segways, net-throwing guns, and other exotic hardware.
The U.S. government tells Americans traveling to Beijing to assume that laptops, cell phones and other devices will be hacked, and information on them copied, during the games.
One expert warns that even digital cameras could be hacked by the Chinese government if plugged into one of the many digital photo-viewing kiosks in the city.
Most taxi drivers and other attendee-facing people in China have reportedly been “recruited” as “intelligence agents” ordered to report any suspicious behavior.
The government has deployed 100,000 police in Beijing alone during the games, plus another 100,000 People’s Liberation Army soldiers and 600,000 “security volunteers,” whose job is to report “suspicious behavior.”
These 800,000 people are the public face of Olympic security. Behind the scenes, an unknowable number of people are monitoring all those cameras and microphones; hacking computers and stealing secrets; monitoring web sites and reading e-mail; listening to phone calls and tracking the movements of suspicious people.
Of course, the terrorist threat to the Olympics is real. But most of the security effort is aimed at snuffing out protest or criticism of the government.
Censorship remains in place. Thousands of dissidents have been rounded up and jailed. Beijing residents have been intimidated into a state of terror.
Many journalists have been denied entry to China to cover the games, and access by journalists to many Web sites has been blocked, despite the unblocking of some after initial protest. E-mail of foreign journalists covering the games is selectively blocked by Chinese authorities.
Those publicly critical of the Beijing government have been denied entry into China for the games, including former gold medalist Olympians.
I predicted in this space in December that the Olympics would prove a “disaster” for the Chinese government because dissident groups and disgruntled citizens will likely do all they can to use the Olympics to gain attention for their causes and grievances. The government, I predicted, would crack down harshly, and this authoritarian, anti-democratic activity would become the main event at the games. When China was granted the 2008 games seven years ago, Chinese officials said the games would bring China the “respect, trust and favor of the international community.” My prediction was that China’s handling of security will bring China the opposite.
But what if I’m wrong?
What if the Olympics turn out to be the public relations coup of the century for China’s authoritarian government?
Page 2: The consequence of a Chinese “victory”
Nothing on this scale has ever been attempted. What if China demonstrates that overwhelming, all-encompassing and ubiquitous digital surveillance, eavesdropping on a massive scale, censorship, the banning and arresting of “undesirables,” and other Orwellian measures is the path to success for international events. For governing in an age of free speech?
The pass/fail test on this won’t be whether all these systems successfully stop terrorist attacks and muzzle free speech. That’s Beijing’s metric.
The question is: Will Beijing get away with it? Will people — both Chinese citizens and foreign visitors — shrug their shoulders and accept it all? Or will they reject it and criticize it?
Will journalists do as they’re told, or will they go out and report conditions in China as they do in all other countries that host the Olympics? Will athletes serve as unwitting apologists for the Chinese Communist Party?
Will the global public remain apathetic about Beijing’s Orwellian experiment? Will everyone trot out the old “China-isn’t-perfect-but-it’s-moving-in-the-right-direction” defense? Is world depicted in Orwell’s “1984” really the “right direction” for anyone?
It’s the classic slippery slope. All governments, and most companies, engage in some kind of security, which often involves snooping, surveillance, activity monitoring and censorship. If Beijing proves that people accept the massive application of electronic Orwellianism, they’ll be tempted to follow China’s example.
The Chinese government has made itself the only organization in the world that knows how to do this.
Will governments turn to China after future terrorist attacks or threats to public order to learn how to build and maintain their own Orwellian IT systems? Will China advise its allies in Darfur, North Korea, Burma and elsewhere on how to maintain power and snuff out dissent through Orwellian IT?
For the sake of the athletes, I hope the Beijing Olympics are a successful sporting event.
And for the safety of Chinese and foreign visitors, I hope all terrorist attacks are foiled, and that there are no accidents, injuries or violence.
But for the sake of humanity, I hope Beijing’s Orwellian IT experiment fails.
In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows magazine. He can be reached at [email protected] or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.