REUTERS

Pollution defeats the surveillance state. 

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    The Story Behind the Housing Meme That Swept the Internet

    How a popular meme about neoliberal capitalism and fast-casual architecture owned itself.

  2. A Soviet map of London, labeled in Russian.
    Maps

    The Soviet Military Secretly Mapped the Entire World

    These intricate, curious maps were supposed to be destroyed. The ones that remain reveal a fascinating portrait of how the U.S.S.R. monitored the world.

  3. A toxic site in Niagara Falls, New York, seen from above.
    Environment

    The Toxic 'Blank Spots' of Niagara Falls

    The region’s “chemical genies” of the early 20th century were heralded as reaching into the future to create a more abundant life for all. Instead, they deprived future generations of their health and well-being.

  4. Transportation

    Europe's Intercity Bus Juggernaut Is Rolling Into the U.S.

    Flixbus is like the Uber of long-haul road travel. Could it reboot the American coach business?

  5. A collage of postcards and palms trees of the Florida shore
    Environment

    The Archaeologists Saving Miami's History From the Sea

    As the water level rises, more than 16,000 historic sites across Florida are at risk of being drowned by waves. In Miami-Dade County, researchers are working to keep history on solid ground.