Are you safe on the Internet? How dataveillance is shaping Chinese culture


In recent years, with the continuous development and popularization of information technology, the importance of personal information in the digital society has become increasingly prominent. People’s activities on the Internet, such as social media use, online shopping and mobile payments, all generate large amounts of personal data. This data may contain private information, such as ID card numbers, bank card information and health conditions, which, if leaked or misused, will have a serious impact on individuals. In addition, the development of the Internet is accompanied by the continuous upgrading of algorithms, and people’s behavior on the Internet is easy to capture for analyzing people’s preferences and upgrading algorithms. Especially in recent years, there have been several major data breaches around the world, some of which involve the personal information of millions or even hundreds of millions of users. These incidents have aroused public and government concern, prompting countries to strengthen the protection and regulation of personal data.

China has the world’s largest number of Internet users and smartphone users, and with the continuous improvement of the national education level, the public’s awareness of personal information security and privacy protection is increasing. People are becoming more concerned about how their personal data is collected, used and protected, and more sensitive to violations of data protection regulations, which has also led the Chinese government to pay more attention to data regulation and personal information security.


Dataveillance, which is ‘the monitoring of citizens on the basis of their online data’ and ‘entails the continuous tracking of (meta) data for unstated preset purposes’; dataveillance ‘goes well beyond the proposition of scrutinizing individuals as it penetrates every fiber of the social fabric’ (Flew, 2021). It is dataveillance that is under the most intense scrutiny, as it goes to the heart of privacy and security issues about the method of collecting, using and sharing personal data on different groups, such as government agencies, academic researchers, and many others.

Privacy rights

Privacy rights have been taken to be an inherent human right, although it is limited in practice because of other competing rights, duties, and norms (Flew, 2021). Privacy rights should be protected should be protected in the same way as personal safety, regardless of factors such as medical conditions or sexual orientation.


Algorithms are the rules and processes established for activities such as calculation, data processing, and automated reasoning (Flew, 2021). Algorithms became increasingly effective from around 2005, because of essential improvements in computing power and speed and, as well as significantly increased amounts of data available for processing. Algorithms can be upgraded by iterative learning from user interactions and data inputs, improving predictive capabilities based on broad datasets.

Why Chinese concern about personal privacy

With the booming development of the Internet in China, concerns about the potential risk of personal privacy online have become one of the most frequently raised issues in the field of Internet and digital media. The COVID-19 global pandemic raised further privacy issues, take China as an example, the Chinese government developed its own apps or worked with companies such as Alibaba and Wechat to access location data and track the movements and interactions of people infected with the virus. The app can show the user’s historical itinerary over the past 14 days, and if the user has had contact with a COVID-19 patient, the itinerary QR code will turn red and the user will receive call from the local hospital and hygien department. Registering the apps requires very private information such as ID number, telephone number, home address and occupation, and many people are worried about how this personal information will be handled by the government and related companies after the epidemic.

(the itinerary QR code)

Additionally, Chinese Internet giants, such as Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu and Bytedance, have a lot of user information that might be used to train algorithm systems for analyzing consumer preferences and online behaviors, so that they can accurately push products and services. Take TikTok as an example, algorithmic systems can push content and creators of interest to users based on big data and this app allows users to like, comment, and repost short videos. TikTok is totally free for users, however, users’ digital traces are used to analyze audience profiles in return. This is true for many platforms, which leads to companies being able to resell user data for a good fee. This kind of behavior seriously damages the privacy and interests of the public and requires the government to conduct effective and strict regulation of user data.    


Data security and protection

Technology giants, because of weak regulatory oversight, have expanded capacities for personal data collection and analysis. This has resulted in a new set of power dynamics and logics of accumulation collectively which is called “surveillance capitalism” (Aho & Duffield, 2020). The rapid spread of digital technology has led to a mass of data produced by humans’ daily online activities, which helps technology companies to analyze, study and instrumentalize human choices. After that, some technology companies sold data and behavioral predictions to commercial ventures and advertisers, who in turn harness these data to more effectively market products to consumers (Aho & Duffield, 2020). Selling information has become a relatively complete industrial chain, while users are in a passive position in this process, as they only know that their information is leaked, but can not trace the source of the problem. It leads to privacy breaches and advertisement telephone harassment, which not only has negative impacts on daily life but also puts people at risk of fraud causing financial damage and psychological harm.

Today, almost every aspect of our lives creates a digital trace: online shopping, playing digital games, watching short videos – technology is integrated into our lives. In the digital society, our data has become a precious commodity (West, 2019). The data generated in our daily lives is collected, aggregated, fed into algorithms, and used to predict our behavior for multiple purposes: to sell products and services, improve search results, and contribute to valuable content.

Another notable example is the requirement to provide personal information as a condition of access to various online products and services, and the capacity of content aggregators such as search engines and social media platforms to onsell these data to third parties. User data can be divided into personally identifiable information and non-personally identifiable information, and there are differences between the two. Reuse of the former requires permission and should be given as part of free and informed consent – in other words, the users are required to personally approve the use of the information. Take Taobao as an example, one of the most popular online shopping platforms in China, it can use someone’s search history to provide that user with a custom search, based on predictive analytics about his or her behavior. However, in order to accurately know more user needs, online shopping platforms such as Taobao have begun to spy on consumers. When people talk to friends or family, the app on the mobile device can catch the product name and push the product on the platform’s home page, which greatly improves the possibility of users purchasing a product.

In addition, third-party platforms with access to large amounts of personal information can use algorithms to track users’ online behavior. The “processing of personal information on an industrial scale” is enabled by terms of service and privacy agreements that leave users with little choice but to give up information about themselves for use by third parties (Flew, 2021). In the digital age, individuals’ onlin social activities, such as searching, liking, and sharing, leave behavioral signals or traces on digital platforms. It is true that reusable data is often provided voluntarily or semi-voluntarily by individuals themselves, particularly through digital self-tracking, and through the use of mobile and wearable digital devices to monitor and share personal behaviors related to health, education, and more.

Government surveillance

Since the 1990s, China’s economic growth and economic globalization have been closely intertwined. With social media taking on a more prominent role in international politics, there is little doubt that the development of the Internet has quickly been seen as a priority by Chinese policymakers, despite concerns about its potential impact on society and politics. As an authoritarian one-party state, China’s control of media and information flow is a distinguishing feature in the development of the Internet, which has always been regarded as crucial to the leadership and legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The Chinese government not only has tight control over the media and speech, compared to Western countries, but also has extensive collection and surveillance capabilities over citizens’ personal information data and exerts strict control over digital information. Although the measure has brought convenience to community management, most of citizens’ personal information is held by the government, and the potential risk of information leakage still exists. From household registration information, education level, business information and even personal income, most of the data of citizens has been entered into the government database, which is very huge, tens of millions of data are entered every day. Additionally, with the increase and upgrading of surveillance cameras in public places, citizens’ facial information and other biometric data are also being recorded unknowingly. Therefore, the broad scale and scope of government surveillance have raised concerns about privacy and civil liberties.

How shaping Chinese culture

Social credit system shapes credibility and law-abiding culture

Based on the huge database and leading data analysis capabilities, the Chinese government has continuously improved and upgraded the social credit system, an evaluation system launched by the Chinese government for its citizens in 2014, using facial recognition technology, big data analysis technology and artificial intelligence. After the system was launched, it effectively regulated the behavior of citizens, reduced the crime rate, and shaped a social culture of honesty and law-abiding.

On the one hand, those who have committed financial default, fraud and other illegal acts will be included in the list of people subject to enforcement of dishonesty and they will be punished, such as being restricted from buying air tickets and high-speed rail tickets and restricting loans. Moreover, their personal information will be registered by the court, and part of the personal information will be published in public places and social networks. On the other hand, behaviors such as blood donation, donation, and community volunteer service are regarded as credit bonus projects, and citizens with high social credit scores will be rewarded with priority or key support in education, employment, entrepreneurship and other fields. This social credit system guides people to pay more attention to honest and law-abiding social behavior and promotes the traditional virtue of honesty.  

Data laws shape privacy protection culture and healthy competition culture

Over the past decade, China has introduced and implemented several laws to strengthen the protection of personal data, such as the Cybersecurity Law in 2017, the E-commerce Law in 2019, and the Personal Information Protection Law in 2021. The promulgation of these laws indicates that the Chinese government is increasingly concerned about the protection of personal data, and reflects the changing means of invading personal privacy with the rapid development of technology.

The Personal Information Protection Law covers data processing rules, government data use, regulatory authorities, legal liabilities and other relevant provisions, making the data use more open and transparent, and placing clear legal responsibilities on individuals, enterprises and departments. On the one hand, this law has strengthened people’s awareness of personal information protection, urging them to pay more attention to their privacy rights and learn to use the law to protect their legitimate rights and interests. On the other hand, the legal constraints on high-tech enterprises and Internet enterprises have been strengthened, effectively regulating their collection and use of user data, and helping to create a culture of legitimate and healthy competition. In general, the improvement and popularization of information protection laws help to shape a culture of privacy protection and healthy competition, strengthening the intensity and depth of dataveillance.


At the moment, the regulatory issues raised by dataveillance on a global scale are complex and difficult to completely solve. Fortunately, the Chinese government has not only improved the quality of life, but also significantly reduced the crime rate, by improving its social credit system and information protection laws. In this case, it is a successful case study that other countries and regions can learn from. Dataveillance is positively shaping Chinese culture, enabling Chinese citizens to embrace the convenience of technological developments while protecting their privacy and preventing the misuse of their private data.


Flew, Terry (2021). Regulating Platforms.

Flew, Terry (2021). Regulating Platforms.

Aho, B., & Duffield, R. (2020). Beyond surveillance capitalism: Privacy, regulation and big data in Europe and China. Economy and Society, 49(2), 187-212.

Han, R., & Jia, L. (2018). Governing by the Internet: Local governance in the digital age. Journal of Chinese Governance, 3(1), 67-85.

Ito, A. (2019). Digital China: A fourth industrial revolution with Chinese characteristics?. Asia-Pacific Review, 26(2), 50-75.

West, S. M. (2019). Data capitalism: Redefining the logics of surveillance and privacy. Business & society, 58(1), 20-41.

The World Bank (2020). Individuals using the Internet (% of population) – China.

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