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WASHINGTON (ChurchMilitant.com) - A U.S. commission is warning that China is using "Orwellian" technology to monitor so-called extremist religious groups, including Christians.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its warning on Wednesday following an interview of five expert witnesses, who testified on "technological surveillance of religion in China." In written testimony, Chris Meserole, deputy director of the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative for the Brookings Institution exposed the extent of China's technological advances.
"No authoritarian state has leveraged digital technologies more successfully than modern China," he wrote. "For religious groups targeted by the CCP, the result has been as devastating as it is tragic."
Before getting into the technological specifics, Meserole discussed the link between authoritarian regimes and surveillance.
"As with all political regimes, authoritarian leaders are obsessed with their survival," he explained. "Yet staying in power is not easy: Regimes need to closely monitor not only elite opinion and public opinion, but also potential dissidents and opposition groups. Digital technology offers a new way to solve that challenge."
Meserole then examined how the Chinese are using technology to monitor religious real estate, identities, practices and beliefs. Among the most concerning technologies are those surveilling private religious practices.
"The Sharp Eyes project enables authorized individuals within a community to view feeds not only from public security cameras, but also from smartphones and smart TVs, including those within private residences and homes," he testified.
This information, while not new, remains disturbing. A 2015 article titled "Secrets of the home: Is your toaster spying on you?" warned how internet-connected devices and so-called Smart devices could be drafted into service as surveillance equipment.
"With a smart system, the whole point is that when you use it, it learns about you over time," says James Scott of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, United Kingdom, who designs smart home gadgets. "That learning intrinsically involves some sort of logging."
Meserole reveals that China is using "de-extremification regulations" to justify such monitoring systems, "making it possible for authorities to detain individuals for privately observing customary religious practices. In Xinjiang, individuals have been detained merely for possessing recordings of the Quran."
Tony Perkins, founder of the Family Research Council, is vice-chair of the USCIRF. He also singled out Chinese practices in Xinjiang, a far western region of China that is home to the nation's ethnic Muslims known as Uyghurs. Church Militant has reported on Muslim persecution in the region, including both the Vatican's and the Muslim world's silence.
Perkins offers similar reports.
"During the past decade, it [the Chinese Communist Party] has installed hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras across the country, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet," Perkins remarked. "This is the first time a government is known to have intentionally used artificial intelligence for racial profiling."
In the United States, there is widespread skepticism about the accuracy of facial recognition technology. The Washington Post reports that "facial-recognition systems misidentified people of color more often than white people."
Because of its inaccuracy among people of color, a New York Times writer recommends banning facial recognition technology.
Thales Defense and Security, a global security firm, posted a comprehensive report on facial recognition technology in June. The report claims the technology has experienced "a 20x improvement over four years."
Perkins closes out his remarks with a warning.
"For too long, American companies assumed that they could do business in China without compromising their commitment to universal values," Perkins said. "That is no longer the case, if it ever was. The information revolution is one of our country's greatest contributions to human civilization, but we also have a responsibility to ensure that the fruits of American innovation are not distorted into a dystopia."