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China developing huge facial recognition database to identify citizens

China is developing what is expected to be the world’s most powerful facial recognition system with the capacity to identify any one of its 1.3 billion citizens within three seconds, according to a report by South China Morning Post.

The system aims to match an individual’s face to their ID photo with approximately 90 percent accuracy for the purpose of tracking wanted suspects and public administration.

Launched by the Ministry of Public Security in 2015 and developed in conjunction with a Shanghai-based security firm Isvision, the system can be connected to surveillance camera networks and will use cloud facilities to connect with data storage and processing centers distributed across the country, according to sources familiar with the project.

Isvision said it won the contract last year but did not provide specific details regarding the agreement.

Meanwhile, some researchers said there is no real indication as to when the system would be completed, as the development was experiencing several issues related to the technical limitations of facial recognition technology and the large population base.

There are currently comparable systems which operate on a smaller level, including police databases and city or provincial ID databases.

However, these systems operate individually and on a significantly smaller scale. The Chinese government also operates a national database of police suspects and people of interest, which it may continue to run separately after the national system goes live.

The core data set for the national system, containing the photo information of each Chinese citizen, will total approximately 13 terabytes.

The complete database, which will include detailed personal information of each Chinese citizen, will not exceed 90 terabytes of storage, according to technical documents on the ministry’s website and a paper written by police researchers.

The system would have to be created on an unprecedented scale due to China’s massive population as big as China’s, according to Chen Jiansheng, an associate professor at the department of electrical engineering at Tsinghua University and a member of the ministry’s Committee of Standardization overseeing technical developments in police forces..

According to Fan Ying, a researcher at the ministry’s population management research center in Beijing, the project team has encountered “unprecedented challenges” due to the government’s high demands for speed and accuracy.

Once the image, gender and age range are entered, the system is required to find a match within three seconds with an accuracy level higher than 88 percent.

In recent tests, the facial recognition algorithm, developed by Tsinghua University, saw an accuracy of below 60 percent. Meanwhile, the accuracy rate remained below 70 percent for the top 20 matches, as reported in a paper published in the domestic journal Electronic Science and Technology in May.

The facial recognition system developed by Ivision will use an algorithm developed by SeetaTech, a startup formed by researchers from the Institute of Computing Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

“Among 1.3 billion people, some totally unrelated people have faces so alike even their parents cannot tell them apart,” a researcher at the Institute of Computing Technology familiar with the project said. “Currently the access to the database is limited to a few security companies with very close ties with the Ministry of Public Security. More access will definitely lead to higher risk of [data] leakage.”

The researcher also added that while the facial recognition system would bring convenience, it would potentially be at the expense of “sacrificing security”.

Previously reported, China’s technology firms are rushing to apply the commercial use of facial recognition technology, bypassing the privacy concerns that have slowed the roll out of the technology in Western markets.

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