China Is Tracking Citizens Using Facial Recognition Technology

Street in Kashgar, Xinjiang Alica Q/Shutterstock

China is taking surveillance culture to a new level and incorporating AI facial recognition to its surveillance system in Xinjiang, a territory in the country's far west bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan. The area is home to a large Muslim population, who are already subject to stringent security measures in what has been referred to as the "perfect police state".

The move is part of a new policy called the "alert project", which has been in operation since 2017 and is being overseen by a state-run defense contractor (China Electronics Technology Group). Essentially, surveillance cameras are being used to identify citizens from a watchlist of suspects and to alert authorities if they venture outside a 300-meter (1,000-foot) "safe zone", an anonymous source revealed in an interview with Bloomberg. The so-called safe zone incorporates the individual's home and workplace.

“A system like this is obviously well-suited to controlling people,” Jim Harper told Bloomberg. Harper is the executive vice president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute as well as a founding member of the US Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee.

“‘Papers, please’ was the symbol of living under tyranny in the past," he added. "Now, government officials don’t need to ask."

But here's the thing. Not only does the lack of privacy scream Big Brother to a terrifying degree, critics note it is unabashedly racist. The scheme is targeting the 10 million Uighurs (a largely Muslim ethnic minority group) living in Xinjiang.

The ongoing surveillance measures are part of a government crackdown on terrorism following a series of attacks, which the Chinese authorities say took place at the hands of a militant faction of Uighur extremists. The result is an airtight security state where cars are tracked by satellites, checkpoints are manned by guards carrying rifles, and Uighers are frequently denied to travel abroad (and sometimes within China itself). Indeed, even contacting a relative abroad can put you at risk of detention if you are a Uighur Muslim. 

While transparency is increasing in much of the world, the Chinese government seems particularly enamored with this new surveillance society. It is predicted that by the year's end, the country will contribute close to half (46 percent) of the world’s $17.3 billion (£12.47 billion) global video surveillance market. It is also home to the world's first "smart city" – all 9 million residents in Hangzou, Zhejiang province, are tracked by AI technology.

But a similar type of facial recognition software could one day be adopted by other countries. According to Harper, who has been researching the technology for possible use in the US, it has the potential to make controlling large groups of people less expensive.

“People will believe that they are being watched all the time,” he added. “And this will cause them to curtail their own freedom.”

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