There are so many intertwining threads in this story about this “re-educational” Chinese app, we could make some very high-quality bedsheets. The ineffectiveness of “consent”. Tech as a force-multiplier for the state. The opacity of the black boxes we increasingly rely on to run our lives. Big Brother, both Orwell’s and CBS’. Gamification. The big lie.
Here’s the story. A German cybersecurity firm, at the direction of the Open Technology Fund, hacked a Chinese android phone app called “Study the Great Nation” and reportedly found a “backdoor” that gives the Chinese Propaganda Department “Superuser” privileges.
These privileges include the power to download any software, modify files and data, or install a program to log key strokes. Although whether to download the app is in theory up to the user, in practice it is close to mandatory. The Communist Party has directed members to download it as have many workplaces. It already has over 100 million registered users.
While the backdoor itself is not public knowledge, the terms and conditions themselves are not exactly comforting to those with Western sensibilities. They disclose that the app will “access and take photos and videos, transmit the user’s location, activate audio recording, dial phone numbers and trawl through the user’s contacts and Internet activity, as well as retrieve information from 960 other applications including shopping, travel and messaging platforms. It even requires the ability to connect to WiFi and turn on the flashlight.”
And, it assigns homework. The app features quizzes on the app’s content and awards points for interacting with the app, like by reading articles and commenting on them. Of course, the app tracks all that. If you read Dave Eggers’ dystopian cautionary tale “The Circle”, you’ll be hearing disturbing echoes about now.
Here’s the really chilling bit: 10,000 Chinese journalists, compelled by their employers to download and use the app, will soon be “tested on their knowledge of Xi Jinping Thought”. Those who pass get press credentials, required in order to work as a journalist in China. I suppose the others have to stay after school or receive lovely parting gifts.
I wrote recently about China’s “top level design” approach to governance and social credit. In this approach to governance, the state sets behavior standards (rather than enacting constitutions or laws), then monitors and reinforces desirable practices by harnessing the power of high-tech surveillance tools. In that case, we were talking about surveillance tech and AI. Here, we have the state actively “encouraging” its citizens to report on themselves. It would be as if the state you live in strongly suggested that you install a tracking app (like Progressive’s “Snapshot) in your car. Oh, you don’t have to do so, unless, of course you want a drivers’ license. (Sorry, for using you as a metaphor, Flo.)
There is apparently a saying out in Silicon Valley about the government’s appetite for new technology: “If you build it, they will come.” Whether you end up with a Field of Dreams or The Killing Fields is anybody’s guess.