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China Closer to Going Full Big-Brother with 600M CCTV Cameras Facial Recognition

Planning a trip to China? Your every public move will likely be watched as the Chinese government rolls out their plans to install 600 million CCTV cameras with advanced facial recognition technology, as reported by China Digital Times and The Wall Street Journal (and summarized at How does the government have such advanced facial recognition off all citizens? From the combination of government issued photo I.D.s and, you may have guessed it, social media accounts. The cameras and facial recognition are not just used for security, as reported by the China Digital Times, but also for marketing and consumer behavior analysis. Read on for this fascinating and controlling future for China and her citizens.

Image credit: Facial recognition mapping from

China to Install 600 Million CCTV Cameras with Advanced Facial Recognition Technology

Two of the recurrent themes recently are China’s ever-widening surveillance of its citizens, and the rise of increasingly powerful facial recognition systems. Those two areas are brought together in a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal that explores China’s plans to roll out facial recognition systems on a massive scale. That’s made a lot easier by the pre-existing centralized image database of citizens, all of whom must have a government-issued photo ID by the age of 16, together with billions more photos found on social networks, to which the Chinese government presumably has ready access.

As for the CCTV side of things, the article quotes industry research figures according to which China already has 176 million surveillance cameras in public and private hands, and is forecast to add another 450 million by 2020. If those figures are to be believed, that would mean around 600 million CCTV cameras by that date — around one for every three people in China. According to the Wall Street Journal:

Facial-recognition cameras are being used in China for routine activities such as gaining entrance to a workplace, withdrawing cash from an ATM and unlocking a smartphone. A KFC restaurant in Beijing is scanning customer faces, then making menu suggestions based on gender and age estimates. One popular park in the capital has deployed it to fight toilet-paper theft in restrooms, using face-scanning dispensers that limit each person to one 2-foot length of paper every nine minutes.

Other existing uses include on a running track to check that people aren’t taking shortcuts, and in churches, mosques and temples, where CCTV cameras are deployed in conjunction with facial recognition to keep tabs on exactly who is engaging in these activities, which are regarded with suspicion by the authorities. Future possibilities are also explored by the article. Inevitably, police use of facial recognition systems figures prominently here:

Still to come: a police car with a roof-mounted camera able to scan in all directions at once and identify wanted lawbreakers. Researchers at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Sichuan province have developed a working prototype. “We’ve tested it at up to 120 kilometers per hour,” said Yin Guangqiang, head of the university’s security-technology lab.

If the prospect of being recognized by a police car hurtling past you at high speed isn’t exciting enough, you can look forward to being spotted by a squadron of facial-recognition drones that a Chinese company is working on. The bad news is that this is still “a little ways into the future”, but we can be pretty sure that once it is possible, China will be among the first to deploy it as part of its ever-more pervasive high-tech surveillance system, with facial recognition playing a central role.

Watch more from The Wall Street Journal here:

Facial Recognition Spreads in Shopping, Surveillance

Facial recognition software is becoming ubiquitous in China as private companies partner with the government to use it for behavioral monitoring and as a form of cardless identification. Chinese startups, tech giants, universities, and government-funded research labs have been heavily investing in artificial intelligence research that includes facial and speech recognition. At The Wall Street Journal this week, Josh Chin and Liza Lin highlighted how facial recognition is being used to influence social behavior in China:

Facial-recognition technology is one of the most powerful new tools in the surveillance arsenal. Fueled by advances in artificial intelligence, these systems can measure key aspects of a face, such as distance between the eyes and skin tone, then cross-reference them against huge databases of photographs collected by government agencies and businesses and shared on social media.

China, however, stands apart in harnessing facial recognition as a cudgel to influence behavior. The Chinese Ministry of Public Security—its national police force—and other agencies called in 2015 for the creation of an “omnipresent, completely connected, always on and fully controllable” nationwide video-surveillance network as a public-safety imperative. In a policy statement, the agencies included “facial comparison” in a list of techniques to be used to improve surveillance networks. [Source]

Among the more widely lauded examples of facial recognition tools is the proposed Smile to Pay feature of Alipay, in which a user can simply take a selfie to authenticate a mobile payment. A similar move toward replacing traditional identification cards with facial data includes ride-sharing app Didi Chuxing’s digital scanning of drivers’ faces to confirm that they are the same people with whom users are matched. E-commerce giant has begun to deliver packages via robots, giving recipients the options of using either QR codes or facial recognition to sign for delivery. On Wednesday, China Southern Airlines began allowing passengers at one Henan airport to use face scans instead of boarding passes.

Use cases that target young people may be of particular concern. These include the installation of cameras with facial recognition capabilities in female college dormitories to ensure that only students access these buildings, and in classrooms to monitor students’ boredom levels. (Ordinary surveillance cameras are also a concern: before parents and students complained about a loss of privacy, they were briefly installed in the boys’ restrooms of a high school in Beijing to allegedly detect if students were smoking or bullying one another.)

On a broader level, the cities of Shenzhen, Jinan, Jiangbei, Suqian, Chongqing, and Fuzhou have implemented facial recognition-equipped cameras meant to shame jaywalkers into breaking the habit. In Jinan, after a jaywalker is identified, their name, age, hukou registration location, state ID number, and headshot are sent to local police, as well as displayed on publicly mounted screens, in newspapers, and online. Other punishments include reporting these transgressions to a jaywalker’s employers and local community, the imposition of small fines, and requiring offenders to briefly work as auxiliary traffic police. Additional government-run services that make use of facial recognition for identification include social credit services such as the Shanghai municipal government-run Honest Shanghai app. The combination of social credit, facial recognition tools, and public shaming of scofflaws is recurrent in Chinese conceptions of future “smart cities” as sites where big data collection can track citizens’ behavior and cut down on crime.

Most discussions of the widespread collection of facial recognition data have been short on considerations of privacy and security risks. Writing in the China Economic Review in 2015, Hudson Lockett identified a central issue that remains unresolved in the development of facial recognition technology in China today, namely that companies collecting sensitive user data have a long way to go to win official confidence:

While regulators’ stated rationale for the requirements is preserving privacy and stemming systemic risk, they often seem more concerned with the latter. Professor Robin Hui Huang, executive director of the Centre for Financial Regulation and Economic Development at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Law, said China’s central bank didn’t have enough confidence in the online facial recognition technology being pushed by Alipay’s MYbank, and were pushing back for better biometric verification.

“The more verification the better from the regulator’s point of view,” Huang said. Time will tell whether that holds true for the consumers forking over their identifying information, but neither Tencent nor Alibaba wants to wait around to find out. The competition is too fierce to survive standing still.” [Source]


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