Beijing's surveillance network, one of the most extensive and invasive in the world, has been compromised by an unexpected foe: smog. The South China Morning Post reports that intense pollution in Beijing has reduced visibility to such an extent that "no surveillance camera can see through the thick layers of particles."
The problem is so serious that National Natural Science Foundation of China has commissioned two groups, one made up of civilians and the other military, to spend four years researching surveillance technology that can see through smog. A contingency solution? Radar. It might cause health problems, but it could penetrate smog particles that "are so many and so solid, they block light almost as effectively as a brick wall."
While the inability to use surveillance cameras could have an impact on crime control, it's also a temporary boon to China's civil liberties advocates and other dissidents. Since launching its "Skynet" surveillance program in 2005, China has bedecked the country with 20 to 30 million security cameras, placing them in taxi cabs, along streets, and inside classrooms, movie theaters, and private buildings. While private parties also buy and use surveillance systems, the Chinese government makes 70 percent of surveillance system purchases.
China's obsession with surveilling every corner of the country led it to spend $16 billion on video surveillance between 2009-2011. With more than 800,000 of those cameras in Beijing, that city now surpasses London as the most surveilled metropolis on the planet. Many of those cameras are used to harass dissidents, as NPR recently reported in this shocking piece on human rights lawyer Li Tiantian. An excerpt:
Chinese state security agents have privately confirmed they can turn cellphones into listening devices. Li says they also eavesdrop on her conversations to track her movements and arrest her.
"One morning, when I was going to a court hearing, I called a gypsy cab," says Li. "Police found out through the telephone that the car was coming to my compound. Then they waited there to catch me."
Li takes most of this in stride, but what really angered her was when agents invaded her private life. In 2011, they showed her boyfriend photos of other men she'd been involved with.
They also tried to show him surveillance camera video of Li entering hotels with the men at various times, but the boyfriend refused to watch.
Beijing and other Chinese municipalities are currently expanding surveillance under the banner of making a "Smart City."
Top image: Cars drive on Guomao Bridge on a heavy haze day in Beijing's central business district January 29, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee.