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China increases employee surveillance, creating its own Thought Police

Apr 30, 20183 mins

China has a form of Orwell’s Thought Police -- surveillance tech to monitor employees’ brainwaves and emotions.

brain-computer interface - binary mind - telepathic computing
Credit: Thinkstock

Just when you thought surveillance in China couldn’t get creepier, you learn it has its own version of George Orwell’s Thought Police.

Besides the use of CCTV surveillance and artificial intelligence (AI) to make spying in real-time resemble something out of TV show Person of Interest — it can even be used to text jaywalkers a fine — and surveillance being used to record public Wi-Fi users’ online activity, there are face scans required to be issued a strip of toilet paper and China’s social credit system, or Citizen Score.

Well, now there’s news circulating about surveillance tech being used to monitor employees’ brainwaves.

True, the “emotional surveillance technology” is not (yet) capable of reading minds, which is what Orwell’s Thought Police does. Still, the worker’s hats or safety helmets are fitted with wireless sensors that are capable of monitoring “emotions and other mental activities.” Employees’ brainwaves are streamed to computers where AI is used “to detect emotional spikes such as depression, anxiety, or rage.”

Yes, there are potential repercussions in the workplace for employees’ state of mind. Even their thoughts are not private because if the system detects emotions that are considered undesirable, the worker could be moved or even sent home.

“The technology is in widespread use around the world, but China has applied it on an unprecedented scale in factories, public transport, state-owned companies, and the military to increase the competitiveness of its manufacturing industry and to maintain social stability,” the South China Morning Post writes.

Expert Jin Jia explained, “When the system issues a warning, the manager asks the worker to take a day off or move to a less critical post. Some jobs require high concentration. There is no room for a mistake.”

Some workers were initially less than enthusiastic about being required to wear the hats fitted with brainwave sensors, but Jin said, “After a while they got used to the device. It looked and felt just like a safety helmet. They wore it all day at work.”

Scientists, companies praise the surveillance tactic

Naturally, scientists and companies involved in the projects to read employee brainwaves and mine the data had nothing but praise for the practice. The article stated that the “unprecedented amount of data from users could help the system improve and enable China to surpass competitors over the next few years.”

Cheng Jingzhou, who oversees the emotional surveillance program at Hangzhou at State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power, claimed, “There is no doubt about its effect.” The company’s profits jumped $315 million since its 40,000 workers started having their brainwaves monitored in 2014.

Zhao Binjian, a manger of Ningbo Shenyang Logistics — yet another company using the tech — claimed, “It has significantly reduced the number of mistakes made by our workers because of the ‘improved understanding’ between the employees and company.”

There’s not just one specific company behind the brainwave-reading tech. For example, Neuro Cap, a Chinese government-funded brain surveillance project, has been implemented at “more than a dozen factories and businesses.” The device and tech has been used in China’s military operations, although no specifics were provided.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.