The recent development of Chinese “smart cities” has captured the attention of international governments and media outlets alike. Communities all over China are being infused with cutting-edge technology that extracts and analyses data to maximize urban livability and efficiency.
But information about a population and its habits are not just being used by urban planners. Smart cities are doubling as an arm of the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state, tracking citizens’ every step and enabling the implementation of Orwellian social credit systems.
Now, smart cities are spreading beyond China. The first Western iteration of this technology lies in Australia’s remote Northern Territory. An unassuming community of about 100,000, the city of Darwin has been unexpectedly transformed into a cutting-edge “smart” city, likened to something out of the Netflix show ‘Black Mirror.’ What is the impact of these “smart cities” on the freedom, privacy, and liberty of Darwin’s unwitting inhabitants?
A utopian plan for Darwin
Between February 2018 and May 2019, local urban planners undertook a $10 million project called “Switching on Darwin.” The rollout included the installation of 900 “smart” LED lights, parking sensors, 24 environmental sensors, free wi-fi, 138 CCTV cameras, and mobile CCTV units.
According to the city, the plan to maximize efficiency requires the harvesting of data to help the local council better understand how Darwin functions. Data will also be made publicly available to help businesses and residents make better decisions. The police will also have access to this data to aid their crime prevention efforts.
According to the city’s website, “smartification” promises to revolutionize the community into a seamless city of the future using an “effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens.”
Smart city or surveillance city?
What this utopian sales pitch from the local government lacks is one critical detail: the term “smart city” is synonymous with “surveillance city.” Darwin’s tech upgrade means that data on where citizens are, what they are doing, and even how they are communicating will be harvested en masse.
Sensors will track car and pedestrian movement. Public wi-fi systems will log when and where citizens access the internet. “Geo-fencing” will set off alarms when a person crosses virtual boundaries. CCTV cameras with infrared capabilities will stream around-the-clock real-time footage of Darwin’s every crevice to the police.
Innovation Manager John Sattler described the plan to install hundreds of “poles fitted with speakers, cameras and wi-fi [which] allow council to gain data on how many people walk on what footpaths and where they use certain websites and apps in the city.” The rest of the community, however, has not been as willing to sacrifice their privacy in return for efficiency.
Darwinians have organized public forums to debate the ‘smartification’ of their community. Meanwhile, experts like University of Western Australia Professor Julia Powles have expressed concern: “We’re creating not smart cities in many ways, but surveilled cities, where there’s constant monitoring, and evidence shows that really fundamentally changes how people operate and exist in cities.”
But as far as Darwin’s leadership is concerned, apprehensive citizens must be either luddites or conspiracy theorists. Lord Mayor Kon Vatskalis scoffed at their concerns, saying, “[If you worry about privacy], don’t get a license, give away your credit cards, and get out of Facebook.”
Privacy issues in Australia
The modernization of Darwin is occurring against the backdrop of growing concerns about privacy and liberty in Australia. This fall, a pregnant Zoe Buhler made headlines when she live streamed her arrest over a social media post promoting a Freedom Day anti-lockdown protest.
Though her Facebook post urged protesters to wear masks and practice social distancing, she was arrested for incitement at home in her pajamas in front of her family while pleading with police, “My two kids are here. I have an ultrasound in an hour. I’m happy to delete the post.”
Buhler’s apprehension drew criticism from the Australian Human Rights Commission which expressed serious concerns about the arrest. It is also indicative of the potential consequences that come with expanding the scope of police surveillance capabilities in Australia with the introduction of “smart city” technology.
The nation’s laws allow for a slew of encroachments upon the privacy of citizens. The Encryption Act of 2018, for example, gives law enforcement unprecedented access to communication data and requires telecommunications providers to hand over unlimited private information without informing customers.
Australian citizens have no universal expectation of privacy as protections are afforded only by local state and territorial laws. For example, Perth has begun using CCTV cameras with facial recognition while trials continue to roll out across country. Without any constitutionally protected right to privacy, smart cities and the data they harvest have unfettered potential to encroach on civilian liberty.
Connections to China
A smaller city like Darwin could never develop “smart city” capabilities on its own. In May of 2019, Darwin’s Lord Mayor Kon Vatskalis and several members of his council traveled to Shenzhen, China, to attend a “smart cities” forum, costing Darwin taxpayers $23,000. As it turns out, the connection to China runs deep.
Darwin’s smart technology is modeled after Shenzhen, a locality whose government utilizes a social credit system that tracks and ranks citizens based on financial and social status and also implements facial recognition surveillance cameras that connect to drivers licenses and criminal records.
The smart city forum attended by Vatskalis was organized by controversial Chinese technology giant Huawei. The company also provides equipment and technological training to police in Xinjiang, the very region in which authorities are carrying out a series of systematic human rights abuses against the minority Uyghur Muslim population.
Although United States intelligence warns against using Huawei technology and has issued a security alert about its funding by the Chinese state, the company has maintained financial agreements across Australia, including a $200 million contract to provide digital radios in Perth’s public transportation systems.
Similarly, a partially state-owned Chinese security company called Hikvision holds government contracts across Australia to provide and install surveillance cameras, many of which are reportedly placed in politically sensitive locations and may pose a national security threat.
In China, Hikvision has placed cameras in nearly one thousand mosques to surveil religious gatherings and ensure that Uyghur imams are keeping to a “unified government script.” The company also provides services and equipment directly to Chinese internment camps.
Yet another concerning company with connections to Australia is the state-owned China Electronics Technology Corporation. The company has developed an app used by police in the Xinjiang region to surveil the bank transactions and internet activity of citizens, with particular attention given to the Uyghur population.
Nonetheless, CETC recently secured a $20 million deal with the University of Technology Sydney to collaborate on technological innovations, which will be used to help modernize the Chinese military and enable the continued surveillance of ethnic minorities. The company operates in 110 other countries, including Ecuador where their technology is enabling a mass surveillance campaign.
Because of its relative geographical isolation from the rest of the western world, Australia’s dependence on China for technology and trade are enormous. According to the Australian government, China accounts for over a quarter of Australia’s global trade — 2.5 times higher than its second largest partner, Japan.
Dr. Michael Rectenwald is one of the few scholars beyond Australia to ring alarm bells. He posits in his book Google Archipelago that this economic dependency may have ultimately led to Darwin’s unexpected modernization: “The city of Darwin may have traded away its citizen’s privacy, self-determination, and even its intellectual capabilities for economic security.”
“Smart Cities” are contagious
The technologies implemented in Darwin set a frightening precedent. Charles Darwin University senior business law lecturer John Garrick perhaps summarizes it best: “[Smart cities have] a very powerful narrative, but we need to ask ourselves: where is this technology being imported from?” Garrick warns this very well may be a foundation for “harder-nosed Chinese-style surveillance.”
Indeed, Darwinians have seen the landscape of their city transformed under their feet in just over a year. Captive in an isolated city, these citizens have no say in what personal data of theirs will be used to make Darwin “smarter.” Without their consent, their city has adopted the very same technologies from the very same companies that enable China’s dystopian social credit system, which Human Rights Watch describes as “chilling.”
Though Darwin represents the first major adoption of Chinese “smart city” technology in the Western sphere, its Orwellian revolution has gone largely unnoticed. Rectenwald posits this may be by design: “Isolated from other areas, [Darwin] may serve as an uncontaminated control group, allowing the gathering of raw data for measuring, to the degree possible, the effects of smart city life.”
But Darwin will serve as just one case study of a global adoption of surveillance state technologies. The list of “smart cities” continues to grow, from Nigeria to Malaysia, and even robot-cops in Dubai. And now, Chinese-developed technologies have metastasized beyond Darwin into the broader western world, with failed attempts in Toronto and San Francisco and active trials underway in Amsterdam and Barcelona.
Under the utopian guise of safety and progress, more and more citizens around the world will be forced to relinquish their privacy in return for a “smarter” community. As Jathan Sadowski puts it: “The ‘smart city’ is not an actually existing entity. It’s a misleading euphemism for a corporately controlled urban future [that] makes infrastructure and surveillance indistinguishable.”
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.