China tests controversial facial recognition surveillance software

Governments currently use a variety of techniques, both known and unknown, to maintain the security of their citizens. For the past year, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China has tested facial recognition services to keep track of potential threats within its borders.

While this concept may seem peculiar or intrusive, methods of keeping track of citizens’ whereabouts for security are not uncommon. As time has progressed, forms of mass surveillance have evolved, starting with monitoring telegraphs, then phone companies and eventually individual cell and smartphones.

With the advent of the internet, authorities now have access to millions of citizens’ internet traffic, including emails, browsing history and online transactions. The sheer degree of information now available to examine amounts to over 2 million bits of data per hour for the U.S. National Security Agency, alone.

“Britain already has cameras everywhere, for general safety, as do many European countries,” said Professor of Political Science Ken Gilmore. “The question will be how far they are willing to push the tracking of individuals, which requires a court order.”

With the onset of this new facial recognition technology, nations will have a new, distinct surveillance advantage they may not have had before. Not only can the region of Xinjiang track where its citizens are, but its government can now see what any individual looks like, where they’re going and who they interact with in real time with live images.

The goal of this technology? Adding an additional layer of security that aids in preventing major conflicts altogether.

Despite this publicized benefit, many individuals hold reservations concerning the extent to which the software could track personal lives.

“I don’t think the sacrifice of our privacy is worth it,” said Early College student Sharanya Ananth. “It’s too much power for any government to have over its citizens, and in the context of China, it’s too much power for a government that already limits the free speech of its citizens.”

Several scholars believe this potential lack of privacy could translate into an excess of state control.

“Surveillance technologies are giving the government a sense that it can finally achieve the level of control over people’s lives that it aspires to,” said German academic Adrian Zenz to The Washington Post.

Besides privacy, the issue of freedom is also a significant concern. Reporters frequently refer to Xinjiang as a “high-tech police state” because of the lack of freedom within the area. The Guardian reports that one local said the region “had become hell” for all of its inhabitants.

Some, especially leaders within China, believe the facial recognition software was necessary.

“(It’s) no surprise that China is all in,” said Gilmore. “China has always taken the stance that social stability is more important than the rights of the individual.”

Officials first introduced the plan following outbursts within the area that authorities deemed to be extremist attacks. Some news outlets and civilians, however, report that more dissent has arisen because the surveillance is primarily targeted towards Muslims living in the area.

Companies such as SenseTime, DeepGlint and Face++ that develop this facial recognition software are becoming more open to sharing the technology with other nations. Now, countries interested in utilizing the software may have to reevaluate what constitutes as “private” for their citizens and once more raise the debate concerning what boundaries can be crossed in the name of security.