Smart City or Surveillance Hell?

China Builds Facial Recognition Database of Its Citizens

China is quickly outpacing the rest of the world in making facial recognition technology a part of people’s everyday lives. Authorities in the country are extensively using facial recognition systems for security purposes. These advanced biometric tools identify individuals, comparing their facial characteristics against a database of hundreds of millions of digital images.

In 2015, the Ministry of Public Security launched a project to build what could be the world’s most powerful facial recognition database, aimed at identifying any of China’s more than 1.3 billion citizens within three seconds. The agency is working with a Shanghai-based security company called Ivision to develop the database for security and government uses such as tracking wanted suspects and public administration. Commercial applications using information from the database won’t be allowed under current regulations.

Sometimes this type of technology can lead to awkward and comical situations. Last week, Dong Mingzhu, chairwoman of China’s biggest maker of air conditioners, Gree Electric Appliances, found her face splashed on a huge screen installed in the city of Ningbo that shows images of people caught jaywalking by surveillance cameras. It turns out that the surveillance system, powered by artificial intelligence, mistook Ms Dong’s photo from an advert on the side of a moving bus for a jaywalker. Fortunately for Ms Dong, police quickly realized the mistake and deleted the snapshot, promising to completely upgrade the artificial intelligence system to cut incidents of false identification.

It’s not just the Chinese government that’s embracing facial screening and artificial intelligence for security. Home-grown technology companies, eager to take a leading global position, are quickly advancing the commercial applications of facial recognition cameras. Major businesses have applied them in industries including retail, travel and banking using sophisticated algorithms to authenticate and cater to individual customers.

Some examples include Ant Financial’s Smile to Pay service, which is deployed at fast-food chain KFC; the “face as boarding pass” capability that online search provider Baidu plans to roll out at Beijing’s main airport; and China Merchants Bank’s facial recognition-based fleet of cash machines. Xiaozhu, China’s equivalent of Airbnb, will use the peak travel season of the Chinese New Year to begin testing smart locks that tenants can open by scanning their faces.

Needless to say there are critics of an environment where machines know so much. Many point to a Big Brother atmosphere of extreme invasion of privacy — in fact, George Orwell never quite predicted that surveillance would come so far. Artificial intelligence experts say that this type of individual observation goes well beyond the original spirit of the technology. For example, law enforcement authorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, where ethnic conflicts have sparked riots, are using facial recognition to identify individuals they consider trouble-makers.

We believe a balance must be reached between law and order and people’s right to privacy. China could be an extreme scenario given its vast population, but if it can pull this off, we expect other authorities and companies around the world to follow suit, working within the boundaries of local regulations. Cities could get so smart that every face rings a bell.