PNW – May 10, 2018
The Chinese police in Nanchang made news in mid April when the press reported the arrest at a concert of a man wanted for fraud. The story was significant because automatic facial recognition systems, linked through now 176 million cameras across the country (rising to 600 million by 2020), had picked the man out of a crowd of 60,000 concertgoers and allowed the police to pinpoint his location in real time.
The episode was promoted by the Chinese government as proof positive of the benefits of the Chinese surveillance state, but the notion that an authoritarian government uses automatic facial recognition to track its citizens everywhere has sent shivers down the spine of anyone concerned about privacy and who may not have full faith in the benevolence of the Chinese government.
Facial recognition holds the promise of an incredible leap forward in law enforcement but backwards in individual rights. No longer will oppressive governments need to employ human watchers to monitor video footage.
Now highly accurate computer algorithms, monitoring tens or even hundreds of millions of video feeds, match patterns of facial geometry to identify individuals, even if beards or makeup are used. A criminal suspect shows his face on a public street, at a shopping mall, in a bank or at a bus stop and an alert can immediately go out to summon police for arrest.
Tellingly, the same system can be used against terrorists, political dissidents, union leaders, human rights protestors, members of the press, the poor, or ethnic minorities. As Paul Harvey used to say, you can run, but you can’t hide.