Identifying Potential Emerging Human Rights Implications in Chinese Smart Cities
In this work, we investigate smart city technologies primarily through an examination of trends in patent filing. We apply machine learning methods both to explore the increasing rates of patent filing globally for smart city technologies, and also to identify the emerging topics on which companies are choosing to focus their efforts. We focus particularly on deployed and emerging urban systems-of-systems in China, which represent a high proportion of patents filed for smart city technologies, with a view to their potential global impacts.
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As a leading source of innovation in the development of smart cities, Chinese patent filing exerts significant influence on similar technologies adopted globally. Our global patent analysis highlights emerging trends in smart city innovations, and the increased adoption of technologies and processes that present significant human rights concerns, especially concerns to privacy, freedom of expression, and assembly.
Cities, and the interactions between their infrastructure and their populations, will be fundamental to the human experience in the future as greater and greater proportions of the global population become urban dwellers. By 2050 more than two thirds of humanity will live in urban areas (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2018).
Cities are undergoing a rapid process of digital transformation, many of them involving advanced systems of surveillance and internet control such as facial recognition. Roughly half of the 1,000 smart city initiatives underway are in China (Atha et al., 2020). Chinese cities are becoming synonymous with massive surveillance and rising ‘digital authoritarianism’ (Dragu & Lupu, 2021; Weber, 2019). China is also actively exporting mass surveillance technologies: AI-enabled ‘Safe Cities’ are being sold to over 75 countries globally (Feldstein, 2021).1 Chinese companies supply AI surveillance technology to over 63 countries, 36 of which have signed up to China’s Belt and Road initiative (Feldstein, 2021).2
The spread of these domestic and exported systems endangers a host of human rights. Predictive policing, or ‘Intelligence-Led Policing’ (情报指导警务) as the model is known in the UK (Schwarck, 2018), is a core feature of smart cities, used by police to identify areas in a city that need additional police attention (expecting future crimes) based on a database of past crimes (Kempin Reuter, 2020). However, predictive policing exacerbates targeting of citizens based on ethnicity. It relies on algorithms that are inherently racially biassed (Kempin Reuter, 2020). The wider material and digital architectures of these systems have a considerable human rights impact too, as will be illustrated in more detail below (Galdon-Clavell, 2013; Williams, 2020; Weber & Ververis, 2021; Kempin Reuter, 2020).
Since IBM brought the concept of smart cities to China in 2008 the concept has been strongly embraced by the Chinese Communist Party, public security organs and industry (Xinhuanet, 2020). Hundreds of smart cities have emerged including in major cities such as Hangzhou and Shanghai (Hangzhou City Government, 2021; Shanghai City Government, 2020). Despite Chinese-developed smart cities having an impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people within and beyond China, few non-Chinese language resources exist on how Chinese smart cities are built and what their impacts are (Chin & Lin, 2022; Walton & Muggah, 2021; Weber & Ververis, 2021).
A smart city is commonly defined as the deployment of technologies within an urban setting to overcome city specific challenges (Green, 2019; Halegoua, 2020a, 2020b; Lorinc, 2022; Townsend, 2014). This paper investigates the smart city infrastructure that is used by law enforcement to monitor citizens, such as cameras, dedicated cloud computing infrastructure and police command headquarters that are integrated into the urban surveillance infrastructure.
We make use of patent repositories to reach a better understanding of the public security aspects of smart cities, using data scraping and machine learning to process our initial list of 67,130 patents, which was reduced to a final list of 5,989 patents that were identified, with high probability, as directly related to smart cities, and that were filed in China. The process of scraping and machine learning is refined and analysed for quality purposes by a ‘human in the loop’ to remove false positive search results caused by colliding terms that match different search topics (Hinsley et al., 2023).
Based on a conceptualisation frequently cited in China, and in particular by Huawei, this work defines the major elements of a Chinese smart city as consisting of a “body-like structure” (China National Maritime Technology Co. Ltd., 2018; Weber & Ververis, 2021). Huawei, for instance, aims to create a digital twin of cities and conceptualises the smart city as if it were a digital body (Dong, 2018; Bayesteh et al., 2022). In this conceptualisation of a smart city the Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, such as cameras with microphones, represent the “eyes and ears'' of a city. Fibre optic cables in a smart city are akin to the neural networks of a body. What would, in a physical body, be considered as the brain is seen in the smart city context as a ‘city brain’. This concept of a ‘city brain’, much as the brain in a physical body, is arguably the most important individual component of a smart city, crucial to coordination and control of the overall organism (see next section). The city brain comprises a city’s physical police command centre that uses cloud computing infrastructure and algorithms to interpret the data gathered by cameras and other IoT devices throughout the city. This interpretation of data in the city brain allows police to take data-informed actions (iFlytek, n.d.).
The remainder of this paper is structured as follows: we first examine smart cities in the context of existing literature of Western sources and compare this with sources from the People’s Republic of China. We summarise the origins of the ‘city brain’ framework in the PRC literature and account for the increasing prevalence of the concept in research.
We continue by laying out our patent analysis methodology with sections on filing frequency changepoint analysis and topic modelling. The key finding from the changepoint analysis is the identification of a key shift in the rate of patent filing for smart cities in China that occurred in early 2015 (Figure 1). This correlates directly with a major mention of smart cities in the 13th Five Year Plan of the China Communist Party, presented in March 2015. The range of topics identified by the topic model show that a significant aspect of smart city innovation focuses on the development and expansion of sensing, monitoring, and – crucially – analytics of the data of citizens. The emergence of these topics as areas of significant commercial interest in China represent a potentially concerning view into the future development of such technologies.
Finally, we assess the implications of smart city patenting for human rights. The European Commission defines smart cities as “a place where traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital solutions for the benefit of its inhabitants and business” (European Commission, n.d.). As will be shown in the analysis of this paper, Chinese smart cities may not always benefit its inhabitants and are sometimes used to specifically repress parts of the population (Walton & Muggah, 2021).