Facial recognition technology is becoming ubiquitous throughout China. It is used to serve meals to students at school cafeterias, pay for items at stores, as a “virtual” boarding pass for airline flights, and even to prevent toilet paper theft at the public restrooms inside a popular tourist attraction in Beijing.
Meanwhile, the country plans on expanding its “Skynet” system, a net of more than 20 million security cameras that employs facial recognition and artificial intelligence technology to gather personal information in real time, to cover the entire country by 2020. The Chinese regime claims the system is used as a crime-fighting tool.
China has embraced the latest advances in surveillance technology with a kind of fervor that has observers worried that an Orwellian nightmare could come true.
At a panel on China’s future held at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica research institute on Nov. 3, scholars warned of China under “digitized totalitarianism.”
Political science professor Dr. Titus C. Chen from the National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan expressed concerns that the advanced technology can be used to squash any potential dissent, in thought or actions, before it takes place, calling it “a modern form of political engineering.”
He also mentioned China’s “social credit score” system, in which all citizens will be enrolled into a national database and rated according to their level of trustworthiness by 2020. The authorities cull criminal records, online purchases, social media activity, and other data to judge people’s levels of social responsibility.
The system is already in place in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, and Xinjiang. Chen explained that the authorities often use big data for their surveillance purposes—especially to see whether someone has opinions that are against the Chinese regime. One way they can determine that is through people’s e-commerce purchases. Chen said this can become a “form of Leninism in the digital era.”
The “Skynet” system is similarly invasive, using facial recognition and AI to identify people’s personal information, such as their age, gender, and clothing description. It is connected to a massive database obtained from citizens’ government IDs. Chinese residents 16 and above are required to obtain one, which includes their name, gender, ethnicity, birth date, and address.
In a recent documentary that aired on the state mouthpiece broadcaster CCTV, the surveillance system was revealed as a way for police to easily identify criminals on the run. But the footage of people crossing the streets and going about their day as information popped up next to them gave off an air of George Orwell’s “1984.”
China is the world’s biggest market for surveillance tools. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a trade show in Shenzhen City. Technology on display could detect people’s moods with a facial scan, gather information on people’s social networks, and search surveillance footage for specific colors and models of vehicles.
Guo Yaorong contributed to this report.