The field of biometrics continues to grow exponentially, and we are entering an age where what was once big brotheresque science fiction is now becoming an everyday reality. Imagine “Minority Report” produced in Hong Kong and you’ll have a decent visual of the advanced tools being deployed by Chinese law enforcement and commercial entities alike. By now, you may have seen the pictures circulating of a Chinese police woman wearing “Blade Runner” style glasses in pursuit of the bad guys.
As part of tightened security amid the upcoming Lunar New Year travel rush — the busiest travel period of the year in the country — police in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou scan the crowd in search of wanted criminals using Google Glass-style eyewear with facial-recognition software. This is just the beginning. More scenes like this are on the way as the PRC strives to make facial recognition a part of everyday life.
Facial recognition systems (biometric computer applications that identify a person based on a database of digital images) have been extensively used by Chinese authorities for security purposes. These systems use sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms and have also been adopted in retail, travel and banking environments.
Some of those applications include the “smile to pay” system used at Chinese locations of the fast-food chain KFC, the “face as boarding pass” capability that online search provider Baidu plans to roll out at Beijing’s primary international airport, and facial recognition-based automated teller machines.
How does it work?
Basically, facial recognition makes a “map” of your face called a faceprint, measuring the unique distances between various points. Like fingerprints, no two faceprints are exactly the same, not even for identical twins.
The Zhengzhou police team can verify the identities of passengers and spot suspected criminals within two to three minutes, all from a distance of five metres with smart glasses hooked up to a portable device, carried by each officer as a means to connect with the police database.
The distance at which the glasses operate will only improve in the future. However, even now it allows law enforcement to make determinations without requiring suspects to come in for questioning or approach them at all without confirmation — they can match suspects with criminal records from a distance and then make arrests on the spot. It increases efficiency but it also increases the opportunity for corruption.
Chinese citizens have begun raising concerns about privacy protection, but local governments and police departments across the country continue to embrace facial recognition technology as a tool for public safety efforts.
The same concerns were raised around Google Glass in the United States in 2013, but Google put off those concerns by barring inclusion of facial recognition technology in the product. The Chinese government shares no such concerns. In 2015, the Ministry of Public Security launched a project with a Shanghai based security company to build the world’s most powerful facial recognition database. They intend to include all of China’s more than 1.3 billion citizens.
Your voice may not be safe from the database either. Chinese tech giant Alibaba created something called “far-field” voice recognition technology and plans to install it in ticket machines in all Shanghai based Metro stations to start. Coupled with existing facial recognition software, rail commuter identities could be verified and “best routes” could be determined. Big brother would be watching AND listening … legally.
Xiaozhu, China’s version of Airbnb, is also testing facial recognition technology to open smart locks at rental properties, satisfying identify verification laws. The appetite for commercial applications is only growing and as China expects to roll out nationwide commercial 5G service beginning in 2020, there is no reason to expect a slow down.
Featured image courtesy of Flickr, altered by Luke Ryan.