The extrapolation of a recent report compiled by IHS Markit has revealed that American citizens are almost as likely to be spied on as are the Chinese, each by their respective regimes. While China boasts one security camera for every 4.1 people, America ranks at 4.6 people per camera deployed, notes the report’s author, IHS Markit analyst Oliver Philippou. Activists bemoan the fact that China is constantly and unashamedly pushing video surveillance into civil society, but the US state and private monitors are almost as ubiquitous.

Long demonised as a totalitarian state, the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong was, indeed, an unashamedly totalitarian construct. The historical vestiges linger, notwithstanding China’s modernisation of the last two decades, and the Communist Party remains the sole political option, with dire consequences for detractors.

That said, whether it is better or worse to watch third party infiltration as is happening in the US, rather than surveillance by the state itself, is debatable. The report noted that the highest number of surveillance cameras in the US were deployed by private enterprise, such as those in hotels, malls and office complexes. For many, it remains a moot point as to whether a camera is installed by state or private entities, as both the Chinese and US regimes can legally commandeer just about anything in the name of national security, thus making private surveillance footage state property.

A billion cameras for the kids

The youth of 2019 will likely be growing up in a world filled with all-seeing eyes. IHS Markit has estimated there will be around one billion surveillance cameras in operation by 2025. The growth in surveillance is being driven by price competition and technological advances – allowing for greater deployment at a lower cost – but also respective government funding and a pressing need for public safety, as is the official line.

Critics disagree, and note that the wanton abuse of privacy through surveillance “for the public good” is a precedent set long ago. They fear that in spite of the impetus being public safety – something yet to be definitively and unambiguously linked to increased surveillance – the likelihood that the state will use it to spy on its citizens, crush dissent and broadly and quietly impose whatever stranglehold best suits its purposes, is almost a foregone conclusion.

With China leading the pack and North America a close second, third place for monitoring its citizens goes to Taiwan, with one camera for every 5.5 residents, the UK in fourth position at 6.5 citizens per camera deployed, and Singapore in fifth place, sporting one surveillance camera for every 7.1 people.

With the current figures being 349 million cameras deployed in China and 70 million in North America, Big Brother has never looked so ominous. Or seen so much. Philippou notes that reporting from the surveillance arena has largely focused on Beijing’s roll-out of monitoring via cameras and AI in public spaces, whereas the US deployment has been almost as ambitious. He concludes by saying that “future debate over mass surveillance is likely to concern America as much as China.”

Even though a larger percentage of surveillance is currently being funded by private enterprise in North America, government agencies have not been absent from the arena. For many years, the Baltimore Police Department enacted aerial surveillance of its citizens, and Detroit has cameras pointed at public housing residents. Many police departments are also advocating tech giant Amazon’s Ring, essentially creating a network of citizens monitoring one another.

Civil rights advocates are warning of the dangers of such enhanced surveillance, disputing any real link between increased surveillance and a reduction in crime, while noting that the technology is all too often abused by political agendas, where innocent people are spuriously targeted or privacy completely eradicated through such surveillance.