China is reportedly building one of the world’s most expansive facial recognition systems for its 1.3 billion population.
China is the world's most populous country with a population of 1.3 billion people. Civilization in China can be traced back 4,000 years. For a more historic view of China, click here.
The modern People's Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949. Thus, the Communist Party came into power. For decades, China’s economy suffered under authoritarian socialism employed by founder Mao Zedong. However, the nation later adopted more capitalistic practices. Presently, it is the second largest economy in the world. It is also the fastest growing economy in the world. It has become a powerful global investor and a leading exporter of goods globally. However, the economic progress has not reflected in political reform.
The Communist Party in China runs a rigid regime where all aspects of life including politics is highly monitored. Lack of privacy is one of the key issues existing in China. The nation tightly controls the flow of information. This has resulted in widespread internet censorship. The nation has in place more than sixty rules and regulations that monitor flow of information through the internet. Political censorship in the communist regime is built into layers of China’s online infrastructure.
A facial recognition system is a computer application capable of identifying or verifying a person from a digital image or a video frame from a video source.
China is currently building one of the world’s most expansive facial recognition systems. The goal of the project, which was launched in 2015, is to be able to match a person’s face to their ID with 90% accuracy. It will essentially connect security cameras nationwide through a cloud to a database of every person’s facial ID profile. This will also be linked to a file of their personal details. The developers want the recognition to be successful within the span of just three seconds. Isvision is reportedly working on the project, however, the company has declined provide further details. The company has experience in this particular field. Its security cameras with facial recognition capabilities were deployed as early as 2003 in Tiananmen Square.
However, the nation is likely to face multiple hurdles before the project could become successful. A researcher at the Institute of Computing Technology familiar with the project said, “Among 1.3 billion people, some totally unrelated people have faces so alike even their parents cannot tell them apart. 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.”
Currently, similar systems exist in the private and public sector in China. The police database in the country reportedly employs it. Additionally, tech giant Alibaba introduced the ‘smile to pay’ facial recognition payments at KFC in China in September 2017.
Regarding the current project, the size of the full database with detailed personal information does not exceed 90 terabytes. The Chinese government reportedly is building it for security purposes and to track down criminals effectively. Commercial application using information sourced from the database will not be allowed under current regulations. However, such policies could be changed by the government.
Our assessment is that the facial recognition system poses a security threat to citizens of China. If facial data and related information is breached and uploaded on the internet, this could cause massive problems for the nation and its people. It will also encroach on the 'citizens' right to navigate within the country without being monitored. This is one of the challenges faced by totalitarian and populist regimes like China. This system is a greater threat to an individual’s privacy than even India’s Aadhaar program.