Facial recognition
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Surveillance cameras are mounted on a post in Hangzhou, China, May 28, 2019. Photo: Bloomberg

Next time you go through a red light in China its growing facial recognition network may catch you out

  • The facial recognition technology checks the faces of drivers and vehicle details against a database, helping to verify the identity of wrongdoers

China’s traffic police are pushing ahead with a nationwide network of facial recognition surveillance cameras to deal with rule violations despite rising global anxiety over the new technology’s impact on privacy.

The central police authority announced on Wednesday that its platform successfully identified 126,000 suspect vehicles without a valid licence last year, for example. They now want to widen the network so that information on suspicious traffic activity can be shared with other cities and provinces.

The facial recognition technology checks the faces of drivers and vehicle details against a database, helping to verify the identity of wrongdoers much more quickly and improving the accuracy of traffic violation management, said Sun Zhengliang, Secretary of the Party Committee at the Ministry of Public Security Traffic Management Science Research Institute, in a traffic security forum on Wednesday in Hefei, Anhui province.

Shenzhen-based AI firm Intellifusion has been providing face-scanning technology to the city’s traffic police since 2018. In Handan in Hebei province, local police have teamed up with Guangzhou-based AI start-up Gosunyun Robot to introduce robots to help direct traffic and provide guidance to drivers.

China’s face-scan tech now stretches to trash cans and public housing

The developments come amid rising resistance to the frictionless identification technology in many western countries, with Oakland recently joining San Francisco as US cities that have banned use of the technology by municipal authorities amid privacy concerns. A legal challenge has also been mounted in the UK against use of facial recognition tech by police, on the grounds that it constitutes an unlawful violation of privacy.

In the US, tech giant Amazon has also been criticised by its employees and shareholders for teaming up with the police to test the ability of facial recognition technology to track suspects in real time.

In China, it’s full steam ahead though and facial recognition is being applied to everything from airport security and crime prevention to garbage sorting. In the hi-tech city of Shenzhen, jaywalkers have already been named-and-shamed by pilot facial recognition schemes.

“For the US, they consider democracy first ahead of technology. In Shenzhen, it’s technology first,” said Wong Kam-Fai, a professor in engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and appointed as a national expert appointed by the Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence, in an interview during this month’s AI Summit in Hong Kong. “They are trying to push out the technology first and see if people can accept it.”

How good are facial recognition systems in identifying people?

For those not yet on the road, facial recognition has also been deployed for learner drivers, allowing students to use their face to register and complete the required road theory study time before they sign up for a driving test.

Beijing has expressed enthusiasm about extending artificial intelligence technologies to many walks of life, from catching criminals, detecting cancers to developing self-driving cars. China is also home to the world’s largest surveillance camera makers amid state-directed efforts to build an “omniscient” surveillance network by 2020.