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China and smart cities: Big Brother is watching you (?)

Aggiornamento: 19 feb 2021

Di Silvia Conticelli

Despite the great popularity of the expression “smart city”, it is not always clear what is its real meaning and, therefore, what makes a city really “smart”.

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Smart cities represent the 4.0 version of More’s Ideal City. By definition, they are sustainable, environmentally friendly and aim to guarantee their citizens’ wealth using all the latest available technologies. Smart cities are born to be the kingdom of the so called IoT (Internet of Things), being interconnected realities, which take advantage of technologies to ensure their citizens with an incredibly high life standard.

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During the Barcelona Smart City Expo, Shao Weimin, Wuhan vice-governor , declared that before the end of 2020 the city would be a real smart city

China is a pioneer country of the “smart city phenomenon”: the first projects started in 2011 and Xi’s government is currently working on the construction of 500 smart cities all over the country. As mentioned in the Shanghai Smart Cities plan 2011-2014, Chinese smart cities “must be digital, connected and smart in order to improve the level of modernization in every aspect of the city, letting the citizens enjoy those benefits” .

At a first glance, the described scenery is, of course, extremely positive and consistently able to drive the country to a city growth model which is equally sustainable both for the environment and citizens. However, we should deeper analyse what the adjective “smart” implies, as it somehow hides the precise intention of Chinese government to track its citizens’ life in order to ensure them a high level of security.

In March 2019, 7000 CCTV cameras fully furnished with AI were installed in Shenzhen’s Longgang District, sadly known for its high criminality rate. Rightly after the installation of the cameras, Robin Li, CEO di Baidu, pointed out how Chinese people are willing to give large part of their privacy rights up, if this means reaching higher security standards.

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Xiong’an represents the perfect prototype of the idea of Smart City, as conceived by President Xi

This kind of statements, together with the hardly transparent laws currently ruling the cybersecurity world would easily lead to question the destination of the images collected by the sensors spread everywhere in all the most technological Chinese cities. Among those “image capturing” technologies, facial recognition has a foreground role, as many Universities around the country has recently introduced it to rule the access to their campus.

On this matter, Techcrunch has recently revealed the existence of a database managed by Alibaba, where citizens’ strictly personal data, coming from facial recognition procedures, are kept.

A recent article published on The Financial Times analysed the Smart City phenomenon in its Chinese development, pointing out the extent to what it is rather instrumental to population tracking. Despite the well-known American bias, what is particularly interesting is his analyses of the Xinjiang case. More than 50% of the Xinjiang population, belongs to the Uygur minority, which is Muslim and historically classified as being not particularly in favor of the Central power. The large number of smart cities in this region has meant the installation of many CCTV cameras ensure a constant control on citizens by the Government, with the rather hidden aim of preventing eventual possible rebellion coming from the minority.

As it always happens, especially when dealing with technologies, the spread of smart cities carry on numerous advantages: they definitely contributes to cut the number of crimes and greatly simplify every day life actions as, for instance, buying groceries or bus tickets using just your face.

There is, however, an important aspect we should reflect on: to what extent should we sacrifice our privacy in the name of security? In Orwell’s words, we should all remember: Big Brother is watching you!

Italian version here.

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