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We’ve just written about China’s ambitious plans to add voiceprints to its existing national biometrics databases. Given the country’s long record of keeping a close watch on its citizens, it’s easy to see this as part of China’s surveillance exceptionalism – the common belief that it is “different”, and that its experiences don’t have much relevance for Western nations. But that would be a mistake.
In many ways, China is not different, just in the vanguard. Ideas that are tried out first in China, where there is little hope of organizing resistance to them, have a habit of turning up later in Western countries, despite local and vocal protests. The main difference is that China is generally not shy about announcing ever-more surveillance of its people, on the grounds that it will supposedly make society safer, whereas Western governments do it surreptitiously, for example by gradually extending the reach of systems that they initially present as mainly aimed at foreigners. That’s been the case for the mass surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden, where local laws were sidestepped on the grounds that the spying took place abroad, or only targeted those in other countries. Something similar now seems to be happening with the main biometrics database in the US:
“The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has contracted one of the world’s largest arms companies to manage a huge expansion of its biometric surveillance programme.
According to a presentation seen by Privacy International, the new system, known as Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (HART), will scoop up a whopping 180 million new biometric transactions per year by 2022.”
The $95 million contract awarded to Northrop Grumman envisages two stages