In China, Surveillance Feeds Become Reality TV – WSJ

Live surveillance feeds around the country are watched by citizens who are increasingly comfortable with big brother

Chinese Artist Transforms Surveillance Footage Into Feature Film
Artist Xu Bing describes how he created the fictional film ‘Dragonfly Eyes’ by piecing together footage taken from ubiquitous surveillance cameras recording the daily lives of Chinese citizens. Photos: Xu Bing Studio

BEIJING—They may be blocked from watching YouTube, but China’s 751 million internet users can binge on real-time video streams of yoga studios, swimming lessons, alpaca ranches and thousands of other scenes captured by surveillance cameras.

Much of what’s available would be unthinkable in the West, according to legal experts, because people dining out, taking dance classes or shopping for lingerie would likely object to having their live images beamed publicly, and doing so without their permission could invite litigation.

In China, however, surveillance is both pervasive and widely accepted. And that’s the subject of a new film by one of China’s best-known contemporary artists.

In “Dragonfly Eyes,” director Xu Bing uses real surveillance footage to tell the story of an ill-fated romance between a young woman who works on a dairy farm and a technician who watches her through the farm’s surveillance system. Mr. Xu believes it’s the first full-length fiction film to be made entirely with surveillance footage.

To make the movie, which premieres Thursday at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival, Mr. Xu and his assistants sifted through roughly 7,000 hours of footage, most of it downloaded from Chinese websites.

The largest of the sites, Shuidi, or Water Drop, is run by internet security company Qihoo360 Technology Co. Another, Ezviz, is operated byHangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co.Ltd., the world’s largest maker of surveillance cameras. Together, the sites host feeds from thousands of cameras scattered around the country.

Creating “Dragonfly Eyes” convinced Mr. Xu of the prescience of “The Truman Show,” the 1998 satire starring Jim Carrey as a man whose every moment is telecast live without his knowledge, the director said.

“The entire world has become a gigantic film studio,” he said.

Mr. Xu said he had wanted to make a film based on surveillance footage for some time but didn’t think it practical until 2015, when he stumbled on Chinese websites set up by security-camera makers to allow for the sharing of surveillance video.
Mr. Xu said he had wanted to make a film based on surveillance footage for some time but didn’t think it practical until 2015, when he stumbled on Chinese websites set up by security-camera makers to allow for the sharing of surveillance video. PHOTO: XU BING STUDIO

The voyeurism of the project initially made Mr. Xu uneasy, he said, but most of the people who appeared in the footage had no problem signing release forms, and some told him they also watched the feeds.

“People’s relationship to surveillance is changing,” Mr. Xu said. “In the past, it was the government using it. But now it’s expanded from the government to everyone.”

Relaxed popular attitudes toward privacy are one reason China’s government has been able to push the boundaries of surveillance. Authorities are implementing a system that will assign each person a “social credit” score based on data about their behavior and have rolled out facial-recognition technology more broadly than any other country, without widespread complaint.

Scenes like this one from ‘Dragonfly Eyes’ can be seen on sites like Shuidi and Ezviz, which host feeds from thousands of cameras scattered around the country.
Scenes like this one from ‘Dragonfly Eyes’ can be seen on sites like Shuidi and Ezviz, which host feeds from thousands of cameras scattered around the country. PHOTO: XU BING STUDIO

China is unique in offering up such a trove of surveillance video, privacy advocates said. While sites exist elsewhere that provide live access to surveillance video, none do it on the scale of Chinese sites, said Simon Davies, a senior fellow at Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based privacy advocacy group.

Charles Farrier, founder of U.K. privacy activist group No CCTV, said the sites normalize spying on fellow citizens, “thus making it more acceptable for the police or the state to spy on its citizens.”

Manufacturers shipped 5.7 million stand-alone network cameras like those that feed Qihoo’s Shuidi platform in 2016, up from four million the year before, according to analytics provider IHS Markit Ltd.

One popular feed from Beijing focuses on a reception area overseen by a slim, attractive woman who, according to user comments, is a chronic nose picker. Efforts to contact the woman were unsuccessful.

A dust-up occurred earlier this year after local Chinese media reported stories of students who were angry over live surveillance feeds in classrooms. Qihoo issued a statement saying it requires camera operators to put up signs notifying people of the video streams. Hikvision’s live-streaming rules require users to promise not to violate others’ image and privacy rights.

Neither company responded to requests for comment.

Through hours of watching, Mr. Xu said he became intimately familiar with the lives of some of the people who appear in his film. Most of them had no problem signing release forms, and some told him they also watched the feeds.
Through hours of watching, Mr. Xu said he became intimately familiar with the lives of some of the people who appear in his film. Most of them had no problem signing release forms, and some told him they also watched the feeds. PHOTO: XU BING STUDIO

No notice was visible at the Shang Ya Dance School in northern Beijing last week as a white Qihoo camera live-streamed a dozen young girls in pastel leotards twirling around a cramped studio.

Parents and a staff member at the studio said they thought the feed was only visible in a private chat group for students’ parents, but it was open to the public on the Shuidi site.

“The first and second ones in the front row are the best dancers,” an anonymous user wrote in a comments section.

“I’m going to talk to the teacher,” one father said after learning anyone on the internet could watch his daughter dance. A few days later, the feed was locked with a password.

Several other camera owners described the live feeds as a good way to promote their businesses and dismissed privacy concerns.

“Customers aren’t concerned about it,” said 26-year-old Liu Yajun, who live streams security video of his wine shop in Changsha, the capital of southern China’s Hunan province. “It’s just an ordinary safety measure, but using more advanced technology that’s more fashionable.”

Source: In China, Surveillance Feeds Become Reality TV – WSJ

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