Data privacy is a hot topic that has politicians from both ends of the political spectrum threatening regulation and punishment for U.S. based companies that secretly gather data from unsuspecting users. However, the biggest threat to data privacy isn’t any American or European business model. China harvests more data than any other country or corporation on earth. Here’s why.
China has long known that artificial intelligence will come to play a lead role in controlling international politics. They already use complex AI to monitor Chinese citizens and international adversaries, and are currently working on fully automated intelligent weaponry. China has pressured itself to be the number one collector of big data because data sets function as the “fuel” for AI technology. In order for a neural network to learn, it has to have a source of information to learn from. This is why Beijing has prioritized and subsidized research and development of data mining devices at an unprecedented level. According to the Pentagon, China now holds over 30% of the world’s data, and Tech Advocate Russ Shaw says that China is amassing “unprecedented amounts of data, unlike anything we are seeing in Europe and the U.S. The combination of advanced technology and government backing has allowed the country to harness the power of its enormous population.”
Most of China’s data comes from independent businesses that function in a mostly free market economy. Like the US, China lets startups rise and fail according to popular demand. This sets the Middle Kingdom apart from other historically communist countries that couldn’t keep up with Western technological advances, like the Soviet Union during the Cold War. China knows that market incentives will bring the best AI to the top, and millions of Chinese citizens used to poverty and chronic hunger are now battling to be the best data collectors on the market. This makes the Chinese R&D development look a little like the U.S.’s. There are government subsidies, market forces, and little regulation of tech start ups. However, two things separate China’s AI situation from the US’s, and both things give Beijing the upper hand.
The first thing that China has and the U.S. lacks is a willingness to share information. Chinese citizens don’t worry about ride sharing apps and social networks collecting their data. Chinese culture has been preaching central authority and a strong sense of community for millennia, and most citizens are comfortable (or at least accustomed) to constant surveillance. According to China’s 500 Startups manager, “Chinese citizens [are] really proud of the fact that we’re actually big enough to even be able to compete with the U.S. in terms of AI. And I think it is just a really exciting time to be in China.” Data collection is seen as a good thing, and sharing personal info is a patriotic duty. Chinese citizens know that data collection will strengthen their presence on the international stage.
The U.S. has a very different relationship with data privacy. Personal liberty and individual rights are at the core of American values. Starting with the Revolutionary War, independence and privacy have shaped the U.S.’s legal system and mainstream culture. Americans will forgo life-saving vaccines and retreat to “off-grid” rural hide outs in order to protect their personal information. Often these fears seem to have little or no practical rational, and yet citizens prove time and again that they are willing to reshape their lives in order to escape surveillance.
It is no wonder that Americans feel uncomfortable when companies want to track them. The very concept of personalized advertisement has caused an uproar across the West. Americans are far from allowing complete insight into their day to day the way the Chinese do. In the U.S., a complex legal schema and cultural indoctrination keeps Americans resistant to any sort of data mining practice, and not without reason. Identify theft, exploitation, and cyber attacks reek havoc on millions of Americans every year. However, resistance to data tracking is often not the direct result of fear of cyber crimes. Instead, Americans use such instances to justify their long-standing devotion to privacy. This means that Americans gather less data, and therefore cut themselves off from future innovation.
Concern for privacy, while well intentioned, will end up having terrible consequences for the American populous if it gives Chinese technology the upper hand. Platforms like the Chinese owned Tik Tok have already proven that Eastern tech can be popularized in the West, and that such technology can be used to gather large swathes of data without users noticing. Tik Tok recently updated it’s terms and conditions to allow for the tracking of biometric data, including things like voice patterns and finger prints. When government tries to step in and prevent this kind of surveillance, like what the Trump administration tried to do with Tik Tok, Chinese leaders threaten retaliation in the form of economic hostility.
As Chinese technology becomes increasingly effective and popular, it will be harder and harder to regulate the data mining of American citizens. Even if legal actions bind companies from gathering certain types of data, it will not be difficult for China to secretly steal information and escape extradition. As we are learning from recent ransom war attacks, foreign enemies have no problem with housing online criminals that attack the United States. There is no reason to believe that Chinese technology will cut back on it’s data collection, and precedent dictates that it will only increase and become harder to detect.
China has a cultural advantage over the US when it comes to AI development, but culture isn’t their only upper hand. China also has a strong central authority and a history of government interference with business. This means that is easier for China to use data for military purposes. The United States, on the other hand, boasts a complex and sensitive relationship between government and corporations. Big AI companies like Google and Amazon have a hard time forging business relationships with federal government. Google employees recently lobbied the company to pull out of billion-dollar defense contracts, and many firms don’t see eye to eye with the US Department of Defense. Data mined by US companies hardly ever makes it’s way to the Pentagon, which means that already scarce data is withheld from government use.
China doesn’t have as many issues with government control of enterprise. It has already fined large tech companies who were or were poised to trade on the New York stock exchange. Jack Ma was notably silenced after criticizing Beijing’s reluctance to allow his fintech company Ant Group an IPO. Chinese leaders fear that public investment into their tech giants will give American shareholders ownership of their swathes of data. Beijing knows that it has the advantage of more information, and they want to keep it that way. Currently, Beijing can seize data from Chinese companies without any international repercussions. However, once American shareholders own said data, their method of funneling privately-collected information into their central government will become more difficult. It will also give investors the ability to use Chinese data as they please. This is not in China’s best interest, at least according to the CCP. They envision a world where foreign data flows into China without any of their own data leaking out. China wants an information monopoly, and they are on their way to getting one.
If we want to avoid Chinese surveillance and AI dominance, we should do what it takes to keep America at the front of tech advancements. In the case of AI, this means better relationships with the federal government and fewer worries about privacy. It is a noble thing to resist government contracts if the motivation is to avoid human suffering. It is also good that American citizens take their privacy and independence seriously. However, we are at a pivotal moment in time where reluctance to innovate will lead to a loss of Western dominance and our way of life. If you value privacy, personal freedoms, and peace, then the worst thing to do right now is fight data collection and AI development. Resistance today could mean Chinese domination tomorrow, with products that track our every move and weaponry to keep us in line. It sounds dystopian, and no reigning power ever likes to imagine their fall. However, we would do well to learn from past world leaders who held on to the old ways of doing things and lost their grip on the world stage. Support Western AI, your data will be safer if you do.