Chinese government biometric surveillance intensifying amid pandemic response

Chinese government biometric surveillance intensifying amid pandemic response

China’s use of biometrics in surveillance is continuing to increase, according to a report by Chinafile, a non-profit organization, published following analysis of over 76,000 Chinese government documents.

These documents detail the recent intensification of China’s surveillance regime amid the pandemic, aiming to achieve 100 percent nationwide coverage this year. This goal was announced as part of Project Sharp Eyes, says IPVM, a mass surveillance program enacted by the government in 2018.

Purchases of facial recognition technology are on the rise, report Chinafile, as are video surveillance systems. Within 13 years (2006-2019), government officials in the Xiqiao district bought 1,400 cameras, 300 of which were facial recognition-specific, according to the documents.

Chinafile emphasizes how traditionally covert government surveillance is now becoming more overt as a result of the COVID-19 control response. Indeed, the tracing system requires people to participate by providing information about their daily activities, volunteering more data than video surveillance could collect. As in other parts of the world, China is using QR codes and other location tracking on citizens to monitor the spread of the virus.

The report describes the documents’ focus on threats in several parts. The area of Xiqiao seeks to identify threats such as terrorism, through implementing cameras at tourist areas, notably 10 alone on Mount Xiqiao, which is frequented by 5 million people a year.

Currently in Guangxi’s Luchuan county, identity fraud detection through facial recognition is being used by police. The Public Security Bureau had sought technology able to discern disguises like hats, masks, glasses, sunglasses, wigs, and fake moustaches. Whereas in Xinjiang, building individuals’ risk profiles can be based on facial hair, family size and a person’s name. Non-biometric tracking methods in use include ID card requirements for vehicle refuelling.

The documents reveal that three other provinces also sought facial recognition technology that can specifically determine ethnicity; noting the Uighur population (a Muslim ethnic minority) as an interest to authorities in this instance. A hybrid capture mode camera would enable a running connection between facial images and individuals’ registered vehicles. A move to deploy thermal imaging cameras was also reported.

Chinafile’s report highlights the government’s aims to have cameras installed in every aspect of societal life, blanketing particular areas of interest to authorities. However, details of how the nationwide surveillance network operates remain ambiguous.

The Financial Times reports that while a Beijing-based research center found two thirds of people ‘strongly agreed’ that facial imaging in society had made public spaces safer; 80 percent were worried about the security of their personal information.

Meanwhile, the first legislation regarding the use of facial recognition technologies on Chinese citizens has been enacted in the city of Hangzhou. The new law would prohibit local government use of facial recognition cameras in residential areas and the legislation appears aligned with public opinion as cases of criticism of facial recognition deployments becomes more common.

A local wildlife park in Hangzhou is being sued for a breach of contract by one of its current members, a professor at Hangzhou university. This came after authorities attempted to subject him to new facial scans in order to enter the park.

The park had recently replaced its fingerprint entry system with facial imaging in order to improve entrance efficiency. The professor, Guo Bing, claims his lawsuit is in cause of fighting against the misuse of facial recognition and feels his consumer rights have been breached.

Beijing citizen runs a social experiment among large-scale street surveillance

Meanwhile, Beijing artist Deng Yufeng is running tours aiming to teach people how best to hide their faces against the 92 surveillance cameras installed on the capital’s Grand Happiness Street.

Yufeng has studied the 1,100-meter long stretch extensively and suggests that approximately half of the 92 cameras are employing facial recognition. He expresses concern about the diminishing level of Chinese citizen’s privacy.

Comparitech, a technology services researcher reports China’s surveillance cameras as amounting to approximately 56 per 1000 people. Comparitech published surveillance data in other cities, including London, which is 67.47 cameras per 1,000 people, for comparison.

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