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Facial recognition powers domestic operations for China’s growing surveillance state

By Joel R. McConvev

December 12, 2022


So far, protesters calling for change in the Chinese government have yet to face the tanks and guns that were used in Tiananmen Square in 1989 — but they are up against a quieter, more pervasive weapon, in China’s extensive facial recognition surveillance network.

Under Xi Jinping, who has amassed more power than any Chinese leader since Mao, the Communist Party of China has spent years building up the world’s largest state security apparatus, including a massive facial recognition surveillance network, a corresponding biometric database, and a national ID card system. According to recent reports from CBC and NPR, it is using these technologies to target ethnic minorities and those who have taken to China’s streets in recent weeks, calling for an end to Xi’s zero-COVID policies and for him to step down as party leader.

Cate Cadell, a security reporter with the Washington Post, told CBC’s The Current that China’s level of surveillance terrifies her. “They can track people over time, their movements through a city,” she said. “They can capture 30 to 100 faces at a single time.” The government itself has boasted that it can scan the entirely of the country’s 1.4 billion people in a single second. While some China observers suspect this is an exaggeration, the idea still works to create a Panopticon-like environment in which the assumption of surveillance is constant.

Speaking on NPR’s TED Radio Hour, journalist Alison Killing, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her work on China’s surveillance state, said cameras mounted in public spaces — for instance, in shopping malls, travel hubs and other high-traffic destinations, or at the entrances to residential complexes — collect a huge amount of biometric data, which allows the Beijing government to identify people by gender, age and ethnicity. Some larger cities have Artificial Intelligence (AI) upgrades which can track traits like clothing and gait — and can make it easier for authorities to identify and track down protestors, away from the spotlight of mass demonstrations.

Face biometrics in Xinjiang region

One particular group has faced dire consequences as a result of China’s rapidly expanding surveillance network. In the western region of Xinjiang, the Uyghur minority have been tracked, imprisoned, and subjected to religious discrimination, forced labor and forced birth control, says the UK government’s recent Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office report on human rights and democracy. The report specifically references “facial recognition software targeting specific ethnicities” in China.

“Mass surveillance and ‘predictive policing’ algorithms were used to enable repression in Xinjiang,” says the report, published on December 9. Furthermore, “media reporting indicated the use of similar technologies elsewhere in China, such as software to track ‘suspicious people,’ facial recognition software targeting specific ethnicities, and social media analysis to monitor Chinese citizens living overseas.”

Alison Killing, who has covered the situation in Xinjiang extensively, points out that the engineering of China’s security apparatus in the region goes back a decade, or more.

“From 2013 or 2014 we saw the start of the real campaign of oppression in Xinjiang, with the installation of this incredibly invasive surveillance state,” she says. She cites documents, discovered by the New York Times, which show tech companies “boasting that they could identify Uyghurs using facial recognition software.” In 2021, the BBC reported that Beijing was testing biometric camera systems that use AI to detect emotional states.

China denies repressing the Uyghur minority, which is predominantly Muslim. But UN officials have expressed fears that the government is turning Xinjiang, which is the largest geographical region in China and home to more than 25 million people, into a “massive internment camp.”

China’s surveillance reach has even extended overseas recently, with the discovery of Chinese “police stations” in Toronto and New York City, which pose as ID shops and places that assist with documents, but are in fact installed to intimidate Chinese citizens living abroad and coerce them back to China. These outposts join the technologies and tactics Beijing uses to quash dissent and control online activity, which are spreading to other countries along the Digital Silk Road.

Overall, the UK report tidily summarizes the state of surveillance in world’s most populous nation in the twenty first century: “The human rights situation in China,” it says, “continued to deteriorate.”


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