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Police officers with AI-powered smart glasses in the central Chinese city of Luoyang on April 3, 2018. (Picture: Reuters)

How China uses digital surveillance to track citizens on the road and beyond

Government deploys facial recognition and social credit system to control 1.4 billion people

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

China may be adding a powerful tracking tool to its massive surveillance network.

The Wall Street Journal reports that RFID chips will be installed on new cars starting next month, allowing reading devices on roads to identify passing cars and send that data back to the government.

It could be another part of China’s growing efforts to constantly track the movements of its nearly 1.4 billion citizens, and create detailed profiles of each and every one of them. The stated goal is to improve public security -- but critics worry it could come at the cost of personal privacy and freedom of expression.

A surveillance camera demo by a Chinese AI company. (Picture: Yitu Technology)

Facial recognition

The country already has more than 170 million CCTV cameras watching from street corners and inside buildings, with plans to add some 400 million more in the next two years. Video footage is fed into AI-powered image recognition systems, allowing police to quickly match faces or license plates with records in a database.
At its best, the technology is being touted as an effective way to maintain public order. Fugitives have been captured at concerts attended by thousands of people, drivers have been caught running red lights, and jaywalkers are publicly shamed on digital billboards on the roadside -- all thanks to facial recognition.
It’s not limited to areas covered by surveillance cameras. During the annual parliament session in Beijing this year, police officers and even police dogs wore body cameras linked to facial recognition software. And during the Lunar New Year travel rush, police were spotted at a railway station in central China wearing facial recognition glasses.
Police officers with AI-powered smart glasses in the central Chinese city of Luoyang on April 3, 2018. (Picture: Reuters)
Right now, most of these systems still operate on a local level, separate from each other. The ultimate goal is to build a national system that can identify any citizen in three seconds, although researchers say they are still working to improve accuracy and speed.

Social credit

The ambitious facial recognition projects don’t cover the entire scope of China’s latest surveillance efforts. Another major component is a social credit system that aims to rate each citizen according to their actions.

Drawing data from government agencies, court verdicts and even mobile payment firms -- the scheme assigns each person an individual score. If you failed to repay debts or have smoked on a train, those actions could land you on a blacklist that’s posted on a public website.

Earlier this month, authorities banned nearly 170 people from flying and taking the train for one year. The most famous of them was Jia Yueting, founder of the now debt-laden tech firm LeEco and CEO of electric car company Faraday Future.

The Chinese government said up to April, more than 10 million people had been named and shamed for ignoring court orders, prompting about a quarter of them to change course.

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All this is just the beginning -- a policy document released in 2014 offers a glimpse into Beijing’s end game. The plan is to rate citizens not only by their financial and legal histories, but also their online behavior, education records, and employment activities.

China’s leaders say the whole idea is to encourage the building of “trust” -- and raise the stakes for breaking it. The social credit system is currently being tested within cities, with a nationwide system expected to be in place by 2020.

As the Chinese government rapidly expands its surveillance network, some citizens wonder what more the future may hold beyond all-seeing cameras and online blacklists.

Reacting to reports of the car tracking system, one person asked on Weibo: “Will they start implanting chips on newborns one day?”

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For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.