Facial Recognition and its role in Chinese police state

Image Credit: Sinéad Mohan

Sam Keane discusses the impact of state-enforced surveillance in China and the dystopian possibilities of such technology.

One would be forgiven for equating the notion of a government-controlled database containing the facial records of every citizen, collated by CCTV cameras capable of recognising a face in a fraction of a second, with despotic regimes found in works of fiction such as Orwell’s “1984” or Huxley’s “Brave New World”. While seemingly an alien notion to us here in Ireland, this dystopian oppression is a reality faced by the 1.4 billion citizens of the People’s Republic of China every single day. In the last three years, the Chinese Communist Party has embarked on the quest of establishing a nationwide surveillance system based around artificial intelligence and, more specifically, facial recognition technology. A 2019 data leak shed light on the immense scale of this operation; in a single day, government CCTV cameras detected and recorded the faces of almost seven million individuals, including that of a six-day-old baby. 

Facial recognition technology has been incorporated into almost every facet of life in China, due in large part to heavy-handed government regulations that require a facial record for even the most trivial of tasks. Newly installed vending machines on university campuses refuse to dispense snacks without first receiving a facial scan. A recently enacted law, which the government claims is intended to tackle identity theft, mandates that all sim cards purchased in China must now be accompanied by a facial record. Citizens are encouraged to use facial scanners to check-in at airports, withdraw money from ATMs, and use public transport. Some apartment complexes have done away with keycards entirely, requiring facial recognition to gain access to the buildings.

These measures may simply seem inconvenient but the government has also employed this new technology in a more sinister way; public humiliation. Cameras at pedestrian crossings analyse the faces of jaywalkers and display them on large screens along with the offender’s name and address. Similar methods are also used to dissuade citizens from the seemingly inconsequential indiscretion of wearing pyjamas outdoors. In this case, offenders are picked up by face-recognising cameras and instantly receive a hefty fine via SMS text message. Public bathrooms in Beijing require facial identification in order to publicly shame patrons who use what is perceived as an excessive amount of toilet paper. These initiatives blatantly indicate that the Chinese Communist Party is actively pursuing a policy of “behavioural engineering”; combining technology and psychology to influence that actions of its 1.4 billion citizens.

In no way are these actions hidden or “behind the scenes”. China’s estimated 2.5 million CCTV cameras are intentionally placed in prominent locations, with the aim of creating the feeling that someone is always watching. Simply put, the Chinese government is sending out the message, loud and clear, that stepping out of line is futile and dangerous. The classic tagline of “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” is used to counter any detractors of the state-enforced surveillance. Nowhere is this toxic climate of near-constant fear and suspicion more evident than in the far-flung northwestern province of Xinjiang. The autonomous region is mainly inhabited by the Uighurs, a Muslim people of Turkic descent who possess their own cultural identity and history, distinct to that of the majority “Han” Chinese. In 2014, the Chinese government launched what was dubbed the “People’s War on Terror”; a massive security and surveillance operation targeting this region under the auspices of fighting Islamic extremism. Over a million Uighurs currently reside in internment camps dotted around the province (euphemistically referred to as re-education or deradicalisation centres) where they are exposed to a regimen of physical and psychological abuse, forced sterilisation and, according to a recent BBC report, systematic rape. Outside of the prisons, the government has attempted to entirely erase the Uighur cultural identity, bulldozing historic mosques and relocating families from neighbourhoods that they have occupied for generations. It is a concerted effort by state authorities to homogenise China into a cultural and ideological monolith; a nation where every citizen conforms to the norms laid out by the Communist Party, or faces the consequences.

Underpinning this abhorrent persecution is a surveillance operation that utilises technology on a scale that dwarfs similar systems found anywhere else in the world. All Uighur citizens are required to report to police stations for mandatory “health checks” where fingerprints, blood samples, facial scans at various angles, and voice recordings are obtained. This data is used to build a biometric profile of each and every Uighur citizen. “Nanny Apps” must be installed on all phones in the province, granting police unrestricted access to calls, texts and internet history. Deep-learning artificial intelligence software can allegedly detect “suspicious behaviour” online, allowing police to pre-emptively flag any perceived troublemakers or dissidents. The seemingly innocuous act of sending messages in the Uighur language instead of Mandarin is enough to land citizens in the suspicious category. Biometric data and internet activity is combined with information gleaned from educational, health, and financial records into a system known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP). IJOP functions as a database and classifies every citizen as either “safe” or “unsafe”. CCTV cameras in the Xinjiang region are equipped with facial recognition technology and can sound an alarm if those deemed “unsafe” are observed entering public spaces such as shopping centres or universities. 

Artificial intelligence software also purportedly allows cameras to determine and flag suspicious behaviour, alerting authorities of citizens dressing in an Islamic fashion or looking uninterested at Chinese flag-raising ceremonies. At the root of the surveillance infrastructure is several Chinese tech start-up companies who turn eye-watering profits developing these systems for the government. Surveillance technology companies have received state investments of over $7.9 billion since 2014. Their operations are not limited to China, security and surveillance software have been sold to governments and corporations (including Amazon) in sixty-three countries. Most recently, Chinese facial-recognition developer CloudWalk was awarded a $301 million contract to install a mass surveillance system on behalf of the Zimbabwean government, another example of China exporting its macabre system of state control to other despotic regimes around the world. Tech giant Huawei came under intense scrutiny in January of this year when the company’s patent for a CCTV system capable of determining ethnicity was leaked to western journalists. This software could be used to categorise citizens based on racial features, acting as an “Uighur Alert”; informing police if an ethnic Uighur strayed more than 300 metres from their home. Similar patents were filed by two other Chinese tech companies; Sensetime and Megvii. All three companies removed mention of such software from official documentation and issued mealy-mouthed apologies, vowing to review their code of ethics for all future endeavours. These revelations have led to sanctions and blacklisting by western governments. However, so long as consumers continue to choose cheap electronic products from the likes of Huawei and turn a blind eye to the company’s role in an active genocide, it seems very little will change. 

The concept of facial recognition and its integration into everyday life is an exciting one for technology developers in Europe and America. Its incorporation into areas such as banking would undoubtedly make life more convenient for the average citizen. However, it is vitally important to be aware of how this burgeoning technology can be used to persecute and control.