Global Surveillance Economy Fuels Boom in High-Tech Communications Trade

As technology amplifies the capability of governments and companies to probe the lives of citizens and consumers, surveillance has become a global commodity, and a booming business for the world’s biggest maker and consumer of communications and audio-visual equipment: China.

In the first 10 months of 2019, China exported USD 320.1 billion worth of high-tech communications equipment (tariff codes 8517, 8504 and 8471), according to Trade Data Monitor (TDM), the world’s premier source of trade data. This global surveillance economy is clearly a big opportunity for China’s massive network of manufacturing hubs churning out phones, cameras, semiconductors, computers, microphones and other key tools for keeping track of people.

China has a massively dominant position. Hong Kong, an administrative part of China, ranked second with USD 85.8 billion in exports over that time. The Netherlands came in third with USD 53.2 billion worth of such goods, followed by the US at USD 51.6 billion and Mexico at USD 40.4 billion, according to TDM.

Top Exporters, High-Tech Communications Equipment (HS 8517, 8504, & 8471); Billions USD, 2009-2019*; China, Hong Kong, Netherlands, United States, EU 28 External Trade, Mexico; Billions USD 450, 400, 350, 300, 250, 200, 150, 100, 50, 0; 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019*; *projected; Source: Trade Data Monitor LLC, January 22, 2020

However, trade tensions with the US and the Trump administration’s wide-ranging tariffs have caused buyers in the US to look elsewhere. Imports of high-tech gear from Vietnam increased a whopping 105% to USD 14.3 billion in the first 10 months of 2019. Shipments from Taiwan grew 87% to USD 9 billion.

There’s no way to break down exactly how much of that gear will be used for surveillance, but it’s growing. In 2020, market analysts expect the market in global video surveillance equipment to surpass USD 20 billion with almost a billion surveillance cameras installed around the world. The installation around the world of 5G communications infrastructure, far more powerful than 4G, will further augment the capability of video oversight.

Domestically, China has become the world’s number one maker, exporter and exploiter of surveillance technology to enforce the law and manage its populations. Technology is changing the relationship between state and citizen. Hundreds of thousands of CCTV cameras can film citizens and recognize their faces. On the road, they’re able to read license plates and track the movement of citizens. Smartphones have put the capability of both business and government to track individual movement on steroids. When people surf the internet at home, every keystroke can be catalogued, measured and analysed. What comes out of all this is data that helps companies build a profile of people’s lives, sell them stuff, and police their activity. In Xinjiang the government is using artificial intelligence harnessed to widespread technological hardware to track population movements. Internationally, this has been highlighted in reporting on the measures taken by the central government of China to monitor the nation’s Uighur minority.

To be sure, it’s not just governments. Retail companies around the world collect data about names, genders, jobs, hobbies, income and relationships the better to push their wares on consumers. And in countries where the government has the legal framework and political motivation, surveillance has become a fact of government, as routine as taxing businesses, collecting gross domestic product data, and managing trade policy.

Around the world, the development of sophisticated artificial intelligence software allowed companies and governments to sort through and analyse data collected on computers, phones and tablets, and on surveillance cameras in public places. The capability of the financially and politically powerful to watch the masses has never been as great.

China’s biggest buyer of high-tech communications equipment during the first 10 months of 2019 was the US, importing USD 77 billion worth, followed by Hong Kong (USD 66.6 billion), the Netherlands (USD 20 billion) and Japan (USD 16.4 billion).

As legal systems sort out the best way of maintaining transparency about protecting people’s rights, the market is likely to keep growing. Police forces now command as much control of data on private citizens as any government in history, much of it surrendered voluntarily by internet users on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Under normal rules, this can be harmless, but the system is vulnerable to abuse by wayward politicians and police forces out to punish enemies of all types.

The manipulation of private data by companies and political campaigns during recent elections has highlighted the need for new regulation and practices to protect privacy and human rights all over the world.

John W. Miller is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker who covered trade, mining and global economics as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. 

Trade Data Monitor (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is a Geneva, Switzerland and Charleston, USA based supplier of import and export statistics from 111 countries.