NEWS / Facial Recognition

Is China Facing Off with Facial Recognition?

JANUARY 21, 2019


In the film of the sci-fi novel, “Minority Report”, the idea of predicting “future crimes” was explored. One of the interesting things about the film was that it showed how biometrics would be used in a future world. The film was made in 2002. And now, 17 years later, it looks like the predictions of the film and book are coming to fruition.

Facial recognition, a type of biometric, is no longer sci-fi; it is here and now. The market size predicted for the use of facial recognition is $15.4 billion USD by 2024, a growth of over 21%. The biggest player in this market is China. The Chinese appetite for facial recognition solutions will see the country take a massive 44.59% of the global market share by 2023.

One of the drivers for this swift market uptake in China, is the strategic plan of the Chinese government to improve facial recognition technology to allow instant recognition of citizens. This strategy will see the development of the biggest facial recognition system for surveillance in the world. This development, and the use of facial recognition by any government has both good and bad implications for humankind.

What Issues Will Surveillance in China Face in 2019?

Facial recognition is a technology that has deep roots in human nature. The human face is the first thing that a baby sees after birth and we are hardwired to see facial shapes. It is a natural progression for technology to mimic real-life. So, the use of facial recognition to spot a criminal in a crowd, or determine if a person is high on drugs, seems like a good use of technology - doesn’t it?

Facial recognition in China is used to identify individuals, profile their behavior, and spot warning signs of crime before it happens. The surveillance systems in China can even determine your “attractiveness”. The system is rolling out fast, with at least 40 Public Security Bureaus having bought surveillance systems from the company, SenseTime AI.
The problems start to become clearer when you add privacy to the equation. Facial recognition, when used within the context of a state, is an “always on” system. It is used to continually monitor citizens for a variety of reasons, the most pressing being criminal activity. As well as being highly invasive, the scope for misuse is massive. A ‘crime’ can be anything that a state determines. Journalists who write anti-government statements may well come under the watchful eyes of the facial recognition system. This scenario can be easily extended to other groups.
A Freedom House study which looked at the impact of surveillance on religious groups found that in China, for example, certain religious groups were undergoing extensive surveillance using video cameras and geo-location tracking. It is a simple step to include facial recognition to this technology stack.

Facing the Future with Facial Recognition

Facial recognition technology is taking root across the globe. In the USA, even the White House has installed AI surveillance cameras. And, at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in Japan, NEC Corp., will provide facial recognition systems to allow both visitors to identify themselves for entry, and to help prevent crime. Facial recognition is a useful biometric tool. It can be used to make cities safer and improve the way we access our devices and entertainment events. However, this must be done with an acceptance of the risks to our personal privacy and autonomy. No one wants to live in a world where we feel continuously monitored. Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are helping to make sure that systems like facial recognition are used with care, but it is also up to us, as individuals, to ensure that we understand the implications of the technology we choose.