Perhaps the single most successful lie told by authorities worldwide is that people must be under continuous surveillance to remain safe. This excuse comes second to none, not even convenience, which is the reason why most people sacrifice their privacy. A third, interesting fact is that among the masses, most people still believe that the government knows how to protect them best.
The artificially created safety dependence gave way to multiple forms of surveillance, even inside someone’s home. From video game platforms to Alexa, from cell phones to refrigerators, from smart meters to webcams; technology went from a set of tools that made life easier to alien eyes inside our home.
The worst part about surveillance is that, like the story of the frog in the boiling pot of water, it has seamlessly made its way into people’s lives to a point it became normal for most folks to be surveilled 24/7, anywhere.
Let’s look at the case of China, the largest and most powerful surveillance state in the world.
China has embraced facial recognition tools to develop the largest Big Brother system on the planet.
They serve to control the population, but also, “conveniently”, to make payments, get married, or get toilet paper.
In January last year, the economic capital of China became the first city to implement surveillance technology in the metro.
“The cameras detect the faces of all users, and check them against the database of people on whom search and capture orders weigh.
As soon as it detects one that matches, it sends an alarm to the Police – which has agents in the stations – with the data of the subject.
In a case, the Dragonfly Ey algorithm recognized a suspect when he crossed the lathe and sent his photograph to the police, who received the image in the PDA they use to verify identities.
The arrest was immediate, and Dragonfly Eye was not wrong. Since then, several hundred people have been arrested, although authorities do not specify how many were made as a result of using the algorithm created by the Chinese company Yitu.
“Our system can easily recognize anyone among 2 billion people,” says company founder, Zhu Long.
Dragonfly Eye already works with the 1.700 billion portraits collected in China’s national database, composed of the photographs of its almost 1.400 billion inhabitants – the new identity documents collect specific information to help identification by facial recognition – and some 320 million foreigners whose biometrics were taken at the borders. It is increasingly equipped with special cameras and this graphic information is complemented people’s fingerprints.
In Yitu’s own headquarters anyone can verify the speed and the efficiency with which the system works. The cameras of this modern building in the Shanghainese neighborhood of Hongqiao record everyone who crosses the entrance door.
The algorithm creates a file with the points that define the face of visitors and employees, and follows their movements throughout the building. The result is shown on a giant screen located in one of the office rooms.
In a plan of the different floors of the building, the system draws the route that has been made by whoever stands in front of the camera incorporated in the screen.
At each point it details the time of arrival, shows a photograph of the subject and offers the possibility of watching a video in which it shows what the person was doing at that particular point.
Almost 200 local and provincial security bodies have already adopted Yitu’s system, which has worked hard on all kinds of events.
For example, it was used in the Qingdao Beer Festival, where it registered the presence of 22 fugitives who were arrested that same day; in Suzhou, 500 criminal cases have been resolved thanks to the evidence obtained by Dragonfly Eye; and in the coastal city of Xiamen, which uses it in public transport, thefts in the bus network have fallen by 30%. The system even managed to identify the skull of a murdered man five years ago.
“AI is a bigger and faster revolution than the industrial one,” Zhu says. “People are engaged in a debate about whether it’s real or a bubble, but advances in facial recognition confirm its enormous potential. In 2015, our system already managed to beat Immigration officials in their ability to determine if two images belong to the same person, and effectiveness has multiplied a thousandfold since then. Now, our algorithm can recognize anyone even with a photo from 30 years ago,” adds this engineer from the coastal province of Fujian.
It is a technological advance that China has not hesitated to adopt to make cities safer. IHS Markit estimates that the country already has almost 170 million video surveillance cameras installed throughout the territory, and it will add some 450 million more by 2020.
They are of all shapes and sizes, and they are everywhere: on lampposts and telephone poles, placed in spectacular batteries on the roads, and inside all the buildings.
As demonstrated by a BBC reporter who tested the facial recognition system in the southern city of Guiyang, it is impossible to escape the Chinese Big Brother: the police only took seven minutes to locate and intercept a supposed criminal using a facial recognition algorithm that sought him out using the video surveillance network.
Even small street stalls install their cameras hanging from a tree.
This public-private infrastructure is seen as the ideal one to implement a national security system based on facial and vehicle recognition. In fact, in the city of Chongqing a project has already been launched that will collect the recordings of both public cameras and those installed by citizens or businesses.
“These systems have a 95% reliability and will lead to a revolution in the way the security forces work. They will allow us to save human resources and, although there will be cases of false positives, they will greatly improve the efficiency of our operations,” said Shenzhen Police Technology Director Li Qiang.
However, as the functions grow and the interest in adopting the system increases, competition in the AI sector applied to security also increases. Face ++ is another of the companies that competes for a piece of the sweet tooth that opens in the public sector. In addition to supplying giants like Huawei with facial recognition systems to unlock smartphones – such as the Honor V10 – it has already managed to get hold of some government projects that have attracted a lot of attention.
In other words, cell phone manufacturers are working with surveillance companies to offer convenient ways to unlock a phone in exchange for giving away your privacy. A giant database is fed everyday, every time a phone user decides to buy a phone and opts in to enable its face recognition technology.
In China, street cameras detect those who walk in an area where there is no zebra crossing or when the traffic light is red, the algorithm identifies the offenders, and then the system shows both their faces and their ID numbers on a screen that some have already baptized as “the plank of the shame of the pedestrians”. In addition to public humiliation, they will receive the corresponding fine.
Although facial recognition is now the most fashionable function, Yitu, founded in 2012, inaugurated the Chinese Big Brother with another system, vehicle recognition. The accuracy is close to 100%.
“It reads the license plates, compare the databases with the model and the color of the car, and it serves both to determine if someone is traveling with false license plates and to record traffic infractions,” says Zhu, who points to a significant reduction of illegal maneuvers where the system works.
The negatives of China’s Big Brother
But not everyone is convinced that the power that emanates from this technology is used only for good. Human Rights Watch (HRW) warns that the Beijing regime is using it to “violate citizens’ privacy and attack dissent”.
Sophie Richardson, director of the NGO in China, affirms that “the authorities gather more and more information from hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens, identify those who deviate from what they consider ‘normal ideology’, and use the data to monitor them.
It is an activity that, according to Richardson, “should cease until China adopts a credible privacy protection framework.”
HRW calls the sum of all these surveillance systems “police clouds”, and advances that not only serves to follow all movements of the population but also to predict them.
“The Government is actively exploring new technologies, such as big data analytics and cloud-based systems to aggregate and ‘mine’ personal information – in which online transactions, medical records or affiliations to different organizations are counted. – more efficiently,” adds the NGO in a report published last November.
The police assure that it only accesses the data of people who have pending cases with the law.
The problem, point out different human rights organizations, is that the judicial system is not independent and is subject to the designs of the Communist Party, which requires Internet companies to abide by local laws that open the doors of their data to the regime.
Zhu, for his part, defends himself by responding that he is not responsible for how the technology he develops is used.
“In addition, it is not something that only governments do. Companies like Google and Facebook do the same without anyone screaming.”
On the other hand, the entrepreneur emphasizes that security is only one of the many applications that face recognition algorithms have. In fact, those developed by Yitu are already used in ATMs of China Merchants Bank. “The client does not require a card to operate.
The system recognizes its face with a special camera – here the currents do not work because it requires a higher level of security – and it only needs to enter the PIN to perform the operation,” Zhu explains.
The e-commerce giant Alibaba has also launched a similar system in its new supermarket chain Hema, in which money isn’t used to pay. The client shows his face in front of a camera, enters his phone number to verify the identity, and ends the purchase without having to take any payment method with him.
For its part, the main application of Chinese instant messaging, WeChat, also adopted this technology in December, and the Chinese Government announced that it will allow the use of accounts that have registered the data necessary for facial recognition as an official electronic identity document.
It is the first step of the future integration of a large part of public services into an electronic identity that will be verified with the face.
In Chongqing, for example, the government already allows couples – even if one of their members is a foreigner residing in China – to marry without presenting documents that support their identity, using facial recognition systems as a substitute.
According to the official Xinhua news agency, this allows to speed up procedures, because the procedure that used to take ten minutes before now ends in 0.3 seconds.
But there is also the risk of taking facial recognition systems to the extreme. It was demonstrated last year at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, where a facial recognition system was set up to dispense toilet paper in its public toilets.
It is a measure to avoid the usual theft, but it has not satisfied everyone: some criticize that 60 centimeters may not be enough and that the 9 minutes that have to wait to be able to order another portion are excessive. But artificial intelligence still does not understand it.