Drones, facial recognition and a social credit system: 10 ways China watches its citizens

From tracking the activity of mobile app users to setting up a social credit scorecard, the world’s most populated country is taking surveillance technology to new heights

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 August, 2018, 10:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 August, 2018, 11:15pm

With a population of 1.3 billion, China’s plan to create a facial recognition system that can identify people within three seconds – with a 90 per cent accuracy rate – may seem ambitious, but that does not stop it from trying.

Various cities have already started using facial recognition to name and shame minor offenders, spot a criminal among thousands-strong crowds and verify the identities of passengers at airports.

China’s mass surveillance efforts do not stop there.

From tracking user activity with mobile phone applications to setting up a “social credit system” to keep tabs on its people, the world’s most populated country is taking surveillance technology to new heights.

Here are some ways China is spying on its citizens.

1. Robotic doves

Over 30 military and government agencies have used birdlike drones and similar machines to spy on people in at least five provinces in China. These robot birds have been designed to replicate 90 per cent of the movements of real doves; they can mimic the flapping action of a bird’s wings as they manoeuvre through the sky.

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When in flight, they are so lifelike and quiet that real birds sometimes fly beside them. The drones are fitted with cameras, a GPS, a flight control system and a data link antenna for satellite communication.

2. Video surveillance

It has long been understood that the Chinese government uses video to keep an eye on the country. But the scale of the endeavour is astounding.

The New York Times reported in July that China has around 200 million surveillance cameras. In 2016, privacy concerns arose when a Chinese city demanded businesses such as massage parlours and public baths install security cameras.

In May, a middle school in east China installed cameras that could analyse students’ facial expressions to determine if they were paying attention in class.

3. Facial recognition

Taking video surveillance to terrifying new heights, China is developing a facial recognition system that can match faces to a database of 1.3 billion ID photos in seconds, with a target of achieving 90 per cent accuracy.

The system will be used for security and government purposes, such as public administration and tracking wanted suspects. This intention has raised alarm bells – mainly to do with privacy issues – among artificial intelligence (AI) experts.

Already, facial recognition technology has been put to use.

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A KFC outlet in Hangzhou, China, has rolled out a “Smile to Pay” system; universities use it to screen staff and students; and some toilets in Beijing use facial recognition science to limit the amount of toilet paper dispensed to each individual.

The technology has also helped police catch fugitives and shortened the immigration process.

4. Border control

Facial recognition technology was implemented at two border checkpoints between Hong Kong and Shenzhen in a crackdown on parallel traders who attempted to exploit a multiple entry visa policy to buy tax-free goods in Hong Kong and resell them in mainland China.

The new system checks visitors’ appearances against a database of faces and travel information and alerts customs officials if it suspects an individual of being a parallel trader.

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In addition, Beijing’s new US$12 billion Zaha Hadid-designed airport, slated to open in 2019, is expected to incorporate the technology in security and immigration work. Cameras will verify identities by matching user’s faces to the national ID database.

Also, airport authorities will use facial recognition tools to match users to their luggage, which will help with baggage tracking and security risk assessments.

5. Apprehending fugitives

While Beijing and Shanghai have used AI and facial recognition systems to regulate traffic and identify violators of traffic laws for some time, the southeastern city of Shenzhen began using AI to display photos of jaywalkers on large LED screens at major intersections in April 2017.

A year later, traffic police in Shenzhen started displaying photos, names and partial ID numbers of jaywalkers online.

Facial recognition technology also was reportedly used to catch three wanted fugitives at separate concerts in China. In one case, a man was identified among a crowd of about 50,000.

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Special glasses with facial-recognition software also have been invented for police use. During the Lunar New Year holiday travel rush, police used these glasses to search for wanted criminals at the Zhengzhou East high-speed rail station.

The device scanned passengers’ faces and activated software that matched their features to a database. As a result, at least seven fugitives related to hit-and-run and human trafficking cases were identified, and 26 cases of identity fraud broken.

6. Messaging platforms

China’s most popular messaging app, WeChat, boasts an 83 per cent penetration rate among smartphone users, and 92 per cent in first-tier cities. But unlike WhatsApp and Telegram, the app does not provide end-to-end encryption, which means third parties – such as hackers, the government and internet operators – have a back-door channel to access users’ messages and data.

In April 2018, a Communist Party anti-corruption watchdog announced in a social media post that deleted WeChat conversations from an individual had been obtained, leading to the questioning of a number of suspects.

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Although WeChat’s owner, the Chinese tech giant Tencent, denied storing chat histories, the post prompted concerns among Chinese users about privacy on social media.

A court in Guangdong province recently ruled that conversations on WeChat and QQ, another Tencent-run messaging app, could be used in court as evidence.

7. Data mining from workers' brains

The uniforms workers wore along the production lines at Hangzhou Chongheng Electric, a factory located in Hangzhou, China, looked ordinary. But in a departure from the norm, wireless sensors were placed in uniform helmets and hats to allow the monitoring of brainwaves.

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Each emotional spike, whether caused by anger, anxiety or sadness, was tracked and recognised by AI algorithms in China’s first large-scale business application of AI technology.

The move helped increase overall efficiency by manipulating the frequency and length of break times to reduce mental stress, the company said.

8. Social Credit System

The Chinese government has built up a data-driven social credit system which automatically generates ratings for each Chinese citizen, business and authority based on whether the government and their fellow citizens consider them trustworthy.

First introduced in 2014, the rating system affects everything from loan approvals to permission to board flights.

The system is expected to be fully in place by 2020, but is already partially in place.

In June, the government released a list of 169 people who had committed misdeeds that included provocations on flights, attempting to take a lighter through airport security, smoking on a high-speed train, tax evasion and failing to pay fines.

Those on the list ended up banned from buying train and plane tickets for a year.

9. Mobile phone applications

Meitu, a popular mobile application that allows people to put virtual make-up on selfies, rose to short-lived fame in the West. Its renown cooled after media reports implied that users’ personal and phone information were being sold, although the company denied the accusations.

A June 2016 regulations that required developers to verify user identities and save activity logs for 60 days aroused suspicion, technology bloggers and security commentators said.

In the same vein, telecom equipment made by Huawei and ZTE was labelled a national security threat by the US government in 2012 while phone-maker Xiaomi has faced data privacy investigations in Taiwan and Singapore.

10. Whistle-blowers

In April, China’s state security bureau set up a website for civilians to report suspicious activity that could threaten national security.

An example would be foreigners meeting “any person within China who has conducted activities endangering state security or is strongly suspected of doing so”.

The website promised rewards for information, although no details were provided. In 2017, the Beijing City National Security Bureau offered 10,000 to 500,000 yuan (US$1,600 to US$79,700) for information on spies.