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Surveillance states: life in the facial recognition spotlight in China, Iran and India

Surveillance states: life in the facial recognition spotlight in China, Iran and India

Police activity following November’s anti COVID-19 policy protests in China suggest they are using new surveillance techniques. Concerns are increasing in Iran over the likelihood of authorities deploying systems to detect women not wearing hijabs and simultaneously identifying them via facial recognition. It may already be happening. And an Indian activist tells the story of what happened to him after he took local police to court for using facial recognition on him.

Novel surveillance paired with traditional menace for China’s protestors

The study of police purchases and interviews with protestors, lawyers and analysts for a Washington Post investigation suggest Chinese police are using new tactics to identify demonstrators and bystanders and track them down.

People even at the periphery of the incidents were later called in by the police. This indicates that police may have used cell signal towers to intercept all mobile numbers in an area and then find the SIM owner.

Police procurement documents reveal how facial recognition surveillance cameras were used in protests. The cameras detect abnormal crowd behavior and track individuals across locations for long periods.

For protestors at Beijing’s Liangmahe area, the neighborhood’s total CCTV surveillance uses facial recognition to identify a person and create a record of them, whether or not they are Uyghur and other details such as date of birth, according to documents found by The Post. The cameras work if a person is wearing sunglasses or a mask.

Shanghai’s Xuhui district bought a similar system, covering a street which had been a protest site the previous month with 620 cameras.

Police also acquired tools to scrape cellphone data from hundreds of apps, whether domestic or international.

Government requirements of internet companies to share information on threats to the Communist Party and even produce trend reports of public sentiment and any triggers to its change have been funneling more data to the authorities. Data is down to the individual user.

Lawyers said there is an attempt to prevent them from even giving legal advice to protestors.

These approaches were paired with the more standard police practices of strip searches, sleep deprivation and also threatening family members, once demonstrators were identified.

Are surveillance camera biometrics spotting hijab offences?

Last September, the head of Iran’s government agency for enforcing morality law said that facial recognition would be used to identify “inappropriate and unusual movements” including women’s failure to wear hijabs, reports Wired.

It was two weeks later that Jina Mahsa Amini died after being taken in by the morality police for not wearing her hijab tightly enough. This led to protests and 19,000 arrests and 500 deaths, according to the report. Activists have noticed that many of the arrests have not happened on the streets at the moment of the alleged offenses, but days later at the women’s homes.

This could indicate that facial recognition is already underway. Researchers have reported that others are receiving letters in the mail about hijab violations, despite having had no interaction with law enforcement.

These signs suggest that the national biometric identity database is connected to surveillance cameras. Iranian traffic police have previously used them to issue warnings to women about wearing the hijab inside vehicles.

It is not clear whether cameras or back-end systems are able to automatically detect deemed infringements of the hijab law, or whether facial recognition is used once an offense has been reported otherwise.

Chinese surveillance equipment manufacturer Tiandy is known to have sold products to the Iranian military through its Iranian subsidiary. The firm has recently been blacklisted in the U.S. partly for this, as equipment contains U.S.-origin items whose export to Iran are banned, and partly for its involvement in repression of minority groups in China including Uyghurs.

Life under the cameras in Hyderabad

A social activist in heavily surveilled Hyderabad took the police to court to challenge their use of facial recognition after he was stopped on the street by officers who took his photo without consent. This happened in March 2021, but the challenger, S. Q. Masood, says he was complying with regulations and mask-wearing.

Masood was helped by the Internet Freedom Foundation to file a petition with the Telangana High Court, as reported a year ago, claiming the use of biometric facial recognition was not backed by law, was unnecessary and disproportionate.

Indian outlet Medianama (subscription not required in this case but still recommended) has spoken to Masood about his decision to go to court and how local surveillance is impacting his life. He said the volume of police operations involving facial recognition, police mobile apps and tech for taking fingerprints and face scans and the lack of clarity around the reasons faces are scanned and where this can be done led to him issuing a legal notice to the Hyderabad Police Commissioner in May 2021.

With no response he then filed a petition on behalf of Telangana residents. This was to the Telangana High Court and with the help of the Internet Freedom Foundation.

Masood says he no longer attends large gatherings due to police use of CCTV. He no longer joins protests and has also stopped going to religious gatherings and certain locations to pray due to heavy surveillance camera presence at these sights.

The surveillance is not just affecting Masood. He says there is a chilling effect as people’s fundamental right to privacy and freedom of movement are restricted.

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