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China technology

Hi-tech surveillance needs safeguards

Facial recognition technology is the new frontier when it comes to tracking criminals and troublemakers. But such technology also greatly enhances the abilities of authorities to monitor and control citizens

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 9:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 10:40pm

When it comes to hi-tech surveillance, facial recognition combined with artificial intelligence is the new frontier. While some tech giants such as Microsoft have warned against its potential abuses, China is already going full steam ahead. The technology promises enhanced security for law enforcement and convenience for consumers, but it also greatly multiplies the abilities of state organs to monitor and control their citizens. That is no doubt one reason why authorities on the mainland are so enamoured of the technology.

Microsoft, a major developer of facial recognition technology, has expressed concerns that it has gone too far and that privacy could easily be infringed upon. It has joined other critical voices to ask the US Congress to look into restricting development of the technology and regulating its use. But as far as China is concerned, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Its booming tech sector is only too happy to cooperate with state authorities. There are an estimated 200 million surveillance cameras on the mainland, roughly four times as many as in the US. Advanced security cameras scan for the most wanted at train stations. Digital billboards display the faces and identities of jaywalkers and other traffic offenders. And in another crackdown on parallel traders, facial recognition has been installed at the Shenzhen Bay and Lo Wu border checkpoints to help monitor and process travellers between Hong Kong and the mainland.

Facial recognition tech comes to Hong Kong-Shenzhen border

Officials like to advertise the sophistication of the technology. But it is almost certain that it is somewhat exaggerated, at least for now. A widely circulated video clip shows a screen keeping close track of the movements of people walking in different directions. In reality, most such devices still require the person in question to stay still for several seconds before the tracking and facial recognition can lock in.

Many such facial processing still requires humans rather than AI programming. But perhaps this does not matter so much. It’s already inspiring fear among criminals and troublemakers that they are being tracked. That’s already a deterrent. The technology will mature quickly, and there is no doubt that it offers all kinds of benefits, including cracking down on crimes. However, authorities should provide safeguards to avoid abuse.