"If I knew, I wouldn't have gone to the concert", stated the suspect known only as Mr Ao, arrested for "economic crimes" in the Chinese city of Nanchang after facial recognition technology had flagged his presence at a concert to the local police. "The suspect looked completely caught by surprise when we took him away," police officer Li Jin told state news agency Xinhua.
China has become the world leader in surveillance, with over 170 million CCTV cameras are already in place and an estimated 400 million new ones will be installed by 2021. Many of the cameras are fitted with artificial intelligence, including facial recognition technology, enabling police to spot people like Mr Ao, even in crowds in excess of 60,000. Described as the "the world's biggest camera surveillance network", railways stations and public transport are at the heart of the latest tactic from the ruling Communist Party to monitor China’s populace.
At least 16 cities, municipalities, and provinces across China have already started using a facial recognition system that can scan the country's entire 1.4 billion-strong population — with 99.8% accuracy, Chinese state media reported.
Police at Zhengzhou Railway Station in Henan have been wearing special smart glasses (pictured above), that are connected straight to a police database. The glasses can screen passengers and cross-check their information with what’s on file. Any individuals with outstanding warrants or with other interest to police will be flagged. According to one report, at least seven suspected criminals and 26 fake ID holders have been caught using the equipment in the first month of its use. These glasses are made by LLVISION , a Chinese company founded in 2014 by former employees of Google, Lenovo, Microsoft, Intel and Nokia and other leading multinationals.
Smart cameras scan train stations for those on China’s most wanted, whilst this technology is also supported by the tracking of internet and mobile phone use, and the logging of hotel stays, train and plane trips and even in some cases car travel. Whilst giant billboards in public places like train and metro stations display the faces of people committing even minor crimes like jaywalking.
In an excellent New York Time article on this topic, Shan Jun, the deputy chief of the police at Zhengzhou railway station, sees the huge potential of this technology for crime fighting - "In the past, it was all about instinct... if you missed something, you missed it.”
The stated goal of this expanding surveillance infrastructure is to deter criminals and increase security but by connecting the CCTV to algorithms and Big Data, the Chinese state is constructing detailed profiles on all citizens. By 2020, China plans to assign each of its 1.4 billion citizens a “social credit score” which will determine what people are allowed to do, and where they rank in society. For those of you who watch NetFlix, this may well remind you of the ‘Nosedive’ episode of Black Mirror.
The convergence of technologies into a sharp surveillance arrow, has alarmed many, with Human Rights Watch writing; “If the Chinese government’s Orwellian drive at home does not alarm the international community, its willingness to export that approach should. It’s not just the liberty of people in China at stake — it is the liberty of people across the globe.”
Editor’s Comment: Everyone wants a safer transport network, and there are few parts of the world untouched by terrorist attacks upon them. There’s no doubt that technology can and does improve safety levels. However, the massive extension of it as being seen in China, and its potential for abuse by a government serving its own aims rather than that of its people, must strike a very cautionary note.
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