China’s facial recognition system causes global concern

Zara Kulish, Staff Writer


What once might have belonged squarely in the domain of futuristic sci-fi warnings like “1984” or “The Minority Report,” now has become reality for anyone who steps over the border into China. Since early 2017, Chinese surveillance officials have been testing a facial recognition program that will alert them if certain people go more than 300 meters from their home or work. This program and its accompanying software, which is designed to predict and prevent terror attacks before they occur, is eerily reminiscent of the machines used by the government in “Person of Interest,” a science fiction TV show which centers around an all-knowing machine that can predict criminals and victims before any illegal action occurs. With technology like this, it is easy for a government to cross the line into becoming a full-on police state.

Of course, the new security additions are not presented as something that could very easily turn China into a panopticon controlled by its security chiefs, but as a convenience and safety enhancing tool that only benefits the citizens. Take for example 40-year-old Mao Ya, from Chongqing, in the Xinjiang region of China. Her apartment building uses the facial recognition system to open its doors, replacing the key cards used previously. Ya enjoys the convenience that the automatic system provides to herself and her five-year-old daughter, without recognizing the consequences. This kind of situation is not exclusive to the apartments. Banks hotels, airports, and even public restrooms are implementing the technology, but no one is more enthusiastic about it than the police and security state.

Xinjiang is just the pilot program’s location. The plan is called Xue Liang, which translates into English as “Sharp Eyes”-a fittingly ominous name. The name is taken from a communist slogan from the era when Mao Zedong tried to get every city to spy on one another. The project will also be utilizing neighborhood committees and townsfolk as sources of information. The aim of the program is to track people’s actions, beliefs, and associates to score them on “trustworthiness.”

Another part of the program is the gathering of biometric data on residents age 12 to 65, a process linked to the household registration ID cards. The “hukuo” system, as this registration program is known, is already giving the government a dangerous amount of control over people’s lives. It is used to limit where a given person can live, and it can be incredibly difficult for someone born in lower class or rural area to move to somewhere nicer or more urban. Gathering biometric data as well extends the overreaching arm of the Chinese government even more.

An even more recent addition to their toolkit of creepily futuristic surveillance technology are mobile facial recognition systems hooked up to eye glasses. They are currently being used to scan passengers on planes and trains. The glasses were developed by LLVision Technology Co., which produces wearable video cameras. They do vet the people to whom they sell the facial recognition devices, although as they are not selling to the general public at this time, it is unkown    what kind of vetting process they use.

China has been experimenting with this program for a year now, but there has been hardly any international coverage of it, and they keep adding new technologies.

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