Two of the recurrent themes here on Techdirt recently are China’s ever-widening surveillance of its citizens, and the rise of increasingly powerful facial recognition systems. Those two areas are brought together in a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal that explores China’s plans to roll out facial recognition systems on a massive scale. That’s made a lot easier by the pre-existing centralized image database of citizens, all of whom must have a government-issued photo ID by the age of 16, together with billions more photos found on social networks, to which the Chinese government presumably has ready access.
As for the CCTV side of things, the article quotes industry research figures according to which China already has 176 million surveillance cameras in public and private hands, and is forecast to add another 450 million by 2020. If those figures are to be believed, that would mean around 600 million CCTV cameras by that date — around one for every three people in China. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Facial-recognition cameras are being used in China for routine activities such as gaining entrance to a workplace, withdrawing cash from an ATM and unlocking a smartphone. A KFC restaurant in Beijing is scanning customer faces, then making menu suggestions based on gender and age estimates. One popular park in the capital has deployed it to fight toilet-paper theft in restrooms, using face-scanning dispensers that limit each person to one 2-foot length of paper every nine minutes.
Other existing uses include on a running track to check that people aren’t taking shortcuts, and in churches, mosques and temples, where CCTV cameras are deployed in conjunction with facial recognition to keep tabs on exactly who is engaging in these activities, which are regarded with suspicion by the authorities. Future possibilities are also explored by the article. Inevitably, police use of facial recognition systems figures prominently here:
Still to come: a police car with a roof-mounted camera able to scan in all directions at once and identify wanted lawbreakers. Researchers at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Sichuan province have developed a working prototype. “We’ve tested it at up to 120 kilometers per hour,” said Yin Guangqiang, head of the university’s security-technology lab.
If the prospect of being recognized by a police car hurtling past you at high speed isn’t exciting enough, you can look forward to being spotted by a squadron of facial-recognition drones that a Chinese company is working on. The bad news is that this is still “a little ways into the future”, but we can be pretty sure that once it is possible, China will be among the first to deploy it as part of its ever-more pervasive high-tech surveillance system, with facial recognition playing a central role.