China Deploys Facial Recognition and AI for Wholesale Surveillance

July 10, 2017  |  By Holly Dragoo & Joel Odom

Using its existing database of photographs from government-issued identification cards and from images harvested via social media, the Chinese government intends to roll out a massive facial recognition system.  The surveillance system, designed to influence behavior and to deter lawbreakers, will combine about 600 million networked cameras with artificial intelligence algorithms, and is expected to be in place by 2020.  As a part of the initiative, the government plans to institute a rating system for individuals’ behavior in professional, financial, and public settings.  According to The Wall Street Journal, while an orchestrated national campaign is still a long way off, facial recognition in China is already used in limited areas to make arrests and track people in restrooms, churches, and public parks.

IISP Analyst Holly Dragoo: "Surveillance networks that are far more extensive than in the U.S. have been around for some time, and it’s no surprise that authoritarian regimes like China are interested in implementing them. Think 1950s/60s Cold War Berlin; everyone and everything was suspect. The splashy new technology and ubiquity of cameras is straight out of dystopian future cinema, but that’s of lesser concern. The truly distressing new concept here is that it is designed to influence behavior. Cold War civil monitoring was about ferreting out spies and foreign government intentions; it wasn’t about jaywalking or getting someone to spend their money a certain way. Jaywalking might be a problem near Tiananmen Square, but is it really needed out in rural Qinghai or Gansu province? As one resident mentioned in the WSJ article, monitoring runners for cutting corners “kind of takes the fun out of running.” My Western bias may be clouding everything, but it’s hard to imagine the security needs for anything like a “behavior score” determined by a government. It’s a terrifying idea that will have widespread repercussions."


IISP Analyst Joel Odom: "My first computer, a TI-99, had four kilobytes of RAM.  My current pocket phone has about one million times as much RAM as my TI-99 had.  An exponential explosion in computing hardware and software capabilities over the past few decades implies that we can do things with computers beyond even George Orwell’s predictions.  In my opinion, our ability to create surveillance technology far outpaces our ability to set policy as to its proper use.  On one hand, who isn't in favor of stopping terrorists and human traffickers?  On the other hand, is the inherent loss of privacy that comes with wholesale surveillance worth the reduction in crime?"




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