The morning after Ian Lahiffe returned to Beijing, he found a surveillance camera being mounted on the wall outside his apartment door.
Its lens was pointing right at him.After a trip to southern China, the 34-year-old Irish expat and his family were starting their two-week home quarantine, a mandatory measure enforced by the Beijing government to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
He said he opened the door as the camera was being installed, without warning.”(Having a camera outside your door is) an incredible erosion of privacy,” said Lahiffe. “It just seems to be a massive data grab. And I don’t know how much of it is actually legal.”
Although there is no official announcement stating that cameras must be fixed outside the homes of people under quarantine, it has been happening in some cities across China since at least February, according to three people who recounted their experience with the cameras to CNN, as well as social media posts and government statements.
China currently has no specific national law to regulate the use of surveillance cameras, but the devices are already a regular part of public life: they’re often there watching when people cross the street, enter a shopping mall, dine in a restaurant, board a bus or even sit in a school classroom.
More than 20 million cameras had been installed across China as of 2017, according to state broadcaster CCTV. But other sources suggest a much higher number.
According to a report from IHS Markit Technology, now a part of Informa Tech, China had 349 million surveillance cameras installed as of 2018, nearly five times the number of cameras in the United States.
China also has eight of the world’s 10 most surveilled cities based on the number of cameras per 1,000 people, according to UK-based technology research firm Comparitech.
But now the pandemic has brought surveillance cameras closer to people’s private lives: from public spaces in the city right to the front doors of their homes — and in some rare cases, surveillance cameras inside their apartments.
CNN has requested comment from China’s National Health Commission. The Ministry of Public Security did not accept CNN’s faxed requests for comment.
Evolution of tactics
China is already using a digital “health code” system to control people’s movements and decide who should go into quarantine. To enforce home quarantine, local authorities have again resorted to technology — and have been open about the use of surveillance cameras.
A sub-district office of the government in Nanjing, in eastern Jiangsu province, said it had installed cameras outside the doors of people under self-quarantine to monitor them 24 hours a day — a move that “helped save personnel expenditures and increased work efficiency,” according to its February 16 post on Weibo, China’s twitter-like platform.
In Hebei province, the Wuchongan county government in the city of Qianan also said it was using surveillance cameras to monitor residents quarantined at home, according to a statement on its website.
In the city of Changchun in northeastern Jilin province, the quarantine cameras in Chaoyang district are powered with artificial intelligence to detect human shapes, the district government said on its website.
In the eastern city of Hangzhou, China Unicom, a state-owned telecom operator, helped the local governments install 238 cameras to monitor home-quarantined residents as of February 8, the company said in a Weibo post.
On Weibo, some people posted photos of cameras they said were newly put up outside their doors, as they went into home quarantine in Beijing, Shenzhen, Nanjing and Changzhou, among other cities.
Some appeared to accept the surveillance, although it remains unclear how much criticism against the measure is tolerated on the country’s closely monitored and censored internet.
A Weibo user, who went into home quarantine after returning to Beijing from Hubei province, said she was told in advance by her neighborhood committee that a camera and an alarm would be installed on her front door.
“(I) fully respect and understand the arrangement,” she wrote.China is fighting the coronavirus with a digital QR code. Here’s how it works
Another Beijing resident said he did not think the camera was necessary, “but since it is a standard requirement, (I’m) happy to accept it,” wrote a person who identified himself as Tian Zengjun, a lawyer in Beijing.Others, worried about the virus’ spread in their communities, called for local authorities to install surveillance cameras to ensure people obey quarantine rules.
Jason Lau, a privacy expert and professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said people across China had grown accustomed to prevalent surveillance long before the coronavirus.”In China, people probably already assume that the government has access to a lot of their data anyway.
If they think the measures are going to keep them safe, keep the community safe and are in the best interest of the public, they may not worry too much about it,” he said.
Cameras inside homes
Some people say cameras have even been placed inside their homes.William Zhou, a public servant, returned to the city of Changzhou, in eastern Jiangsu province, from his native Anhui province in late February.
The next day, he said a community worker and a police officer came to his apartment and set up a camera pointing at his front door — from a cabinet wall inside his home.
Zhou said he did not like the idea. He asked the community worker what the camera would record and the community worker showed him the footage on his smartphone.”I was standing in my living room and the camera captured me clearly in its frame,” said Zhou, who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of repercussions.