Tag Archives: facial recognition system

Software to Identify Uighurs

Chinese telecommunications giant “Huawei” has tested surveillance and facial-recognition software that would alert Chinese authorities when it “identifies” Uighur Muslims.

The company worked with Chinese tech startup Megvii in 2018 to test surveillance equipment capable of identifying Chinese citizens from a crowd by their “sex, age, and ethnicity.” 

According to a document signed by Huawei officials and obtained by the Washington Post. When the software identifies Uighur Muslims, according to the document, it could send alerts or flag the citizens for investigation by Chinese authorities.

The document was scrubbed from Huawei’s website soon after the Post asked for comment.

Chinese labor camp in Xinjiang region.

The surveillance technology is just one element of a larger crackdown on the religious and political freedoms of Uighurs in China. Millions of Uighurs are held in “work camps” in western China, where they are often subjected to population control, brutal work conditions, and forced renunciation of their faith.

Senate Republicans have called on Washington to designate China’s treatment of Uighurs as a genocide.

Chinese surveillance systems remain a major concern for policymakers, especially those made by Huawei. China is also developing a new social credit system using surveillance technology that would limit political and economic opportunity for certain citizens.

While the State Department has taken a hard line against Chinese technology through efforts such as the Clean Network and has lobbied Europe to limit Huawei’s 5G plans there, American investors have had less success in divorcing themselves from Chinese capital.

Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in the Xinjiang region

By some estimates over $1 trillion in U.S. funds are currently invested in China, including in Chinese tech firms that cooperate with the Chinese government in suppressing human freedoms.

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Digital Dictatorship

The Chinese “social credit system” has been given an unequivocally negative reception by the media in the west.

Set to be rolled out nationwide in 2020, the system has even been described by one journalist as China’s “most ambitious project in social engineering since the Cultural Revolution.”

On the surface, this reaction is understandable. Once the system is fully implemented, Chinese citizens will be given a social credit score based on their behavioral “deeds.” For example, failure to “pay” a court bill or playing “loud” music in public may cause a low score. This score can dictate what “rights” people have.

Those on the “blacklist” are prevented from buying “plane or train” tickets, for instance, as well as working as civil servants or in certain industries.

The fact that “Big Data” and facial recognition technology will be applied for the purpose of monitoring citizens raises various human rights concerns. Not surprisingly, the scheme has been described as a “digital dictatorship and a “dystopian nightmare” straight out of Black Mirror.

But what these accounts lack is a sense of how the system is perceived from within China, which turns out to be rather complicated. A 16-month ethnographic study found that ordinary Chinese people “perceive and accept” the system differently – “and most of them seem to welcome it.”

The study, carried out in 2018-2019, examined the use of “digital” devices, such as smart phones, in Shanghai. Ethnography tries to minimize “artificial” encounters, such as surveys and interviews, in favor of being present with people in their everyday lives.

The study was designed to gain a “holistic” understanding of ordinary Chinese people’s daily lives, with a particular focus on “digital” engagement which at times included dealing with big issues such as state “digital surveillance.”

People talked “freely” about their feelings and ideas. Around 500 people spent at least 15 hours in “conversations” about the social credit system which came up naturally rather than through direct questioning.

Contrary to what many people in the west believe, in private and during informal talks among friends, ordinary Chinese are not “shy or concerned” about expressing their opinions about politics.

These are the words of Mr Zhu, a man in his 40s. He was explaining his “reluctance” to let his mother use a smartphone as she may fall prey to “online” scammers. He was not alone in worrying about what is seen as an intensifying “crisis of public morality.”

Another research participant, the mother of a newborn baby searching for a “nanny” ended up installing “secret cameras” at home to help her choose a trustworthy one.

The people seemed less concerned about giving up some “privacy” if it meant a significantly higher degree of “security” and certainty. And a lot of the people perceived the new social credit system as a national project to boost public “morality” through fighting fraud and crime and combating what is currently seen as a nationwide crisis of trust.

China has experienced a rising number of “fraud and scam” cases, as well as major scandals in the food safety and pharmaceutical industries. There is a widely held consensus that the “punishment” for these offenses is not enough to deter re-offending, with people committing “crimes” in one province and setting up a business in another the next day with few consequences. Some believe the social credit system will remedy this through the “blacklisting” system.

There is also another narrative which says that western society is “civilized” because of a long-existing credit system. But this narrative is largely based on an “imagined” version of western society. And many assume that the idea of a social credit system in China was actually imported from the west.

Penyue, a retired teacher, complained about “uncivilized” deeds, such as spitting or littering in public and said: “Things in the west are better because they have a mature credit system, right?”

Some see it as the equivalent of the more established concept of “credit-worthiness” or getting a good “credit” score but in the moral, as opposed to the financial sense.

There are many apocryphal stories linked to this myth, including one about a Chinese graduate who finds herself outside China in a western city and – despite being qualified – cannot secure a job, because of her past record of fare dodging on trains, an offense which stayed on her credit record.

The point of the story is that in western societies people who break even minor rules won’t be accepted, no matter how qualified, as there are consequences. Stories like this use “the west” as a moral showcase of what a “civilized” society should be.

These stories may be false, but they are true reflections of a commonly held belief that the problem was created by individualism and modernity in China and that the west dealt with the transition to modernity more effectively.

China’s own transition from an agricultural collective society, where people always knew who they were dealing with, to a modern one characterized by reliance on strangers is ongoing, and people believe that navigating this requires guidance.

The erosion of mutual trust is also attributed to Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, a turbulent period characterized by everyone denouncing everyone else, including friends and family. So citizens see there is a need for mechanisms that enable people to take full responsibility for, and be judged by, their deeds.

Chinese citizens have also tended to view life itself as credit and often refer to an old saying: “People are doing things, and the sky (tian) is watching.” This means that whatever one does, there is always a record of their deeds in the sky.

The karma system is the standardization of the relationship between human beings and supernatural powers. One can earn points by doing good deeds, but these can also be easily squandered through bad ones.

I am not trying to adjudicate whether it is appropriate for modern China to play the role of “Tian,” but it is important when writing about these developments to appreciate the way they are understood within Chinese society and why attitudes there might be quite different from what people in the west might assume.

Big brother 2.0. As China builds digital dictatorship

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Face Scans for Phone Users

China will require phone buyers to provide face scans as of December 1, 2019. Photo: AFP

China will require telecom operators to collect “face scans” when registering phone users at offline outlets starting as of December 1, 2019, according to the country’s information technology authority, as Beijing continues to tighten “cyberspace” controls.

In September, China’s industry and information technology ministry issued a notice on “safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of citizens online,” which laid out rules for enforcing “real-name” registration.

The notice said telecom operators should use “artificial intelligence and other technical means” to verify people’s identities when they take a phone number.

A China Unicom customer service representative said the December 1 “portrait matching” requirement means customers registering for a phone number may have to record themselves turning their head and blinking.

“In the next steps, our ministry will continue to…increase supervision and inspection…and strictly promote the management of real-name registration for phone users,” said the September notice.

Though the Chinese government has pushed for “real-name” registration for phone users since at least 2013 – meaning “ID cards” are linked to phone numbers – the move to leverage AI comes as “facial recognition technology” gains traction across China where the tech is used for everything from supermarket checkouts to surveillance.

Online, Chinese social media users reacted with a mix of support and worry over the “facial verification” notice, with some voicing concerns their biometric data could be “leaked or sold.”

“This is a bit too much,” wrote one user on Twitter-like Weibo, commenting under an article about the new rules. “Control, and then more control,” posted another.

While researchers have warned of the “privacy risks” associated with gathering facial recognition data, consumers have widely embraced the technology, though China saw one of its first “lawsuit on facial recognition” last month.

In early November, a Chinese professor filed a “claim” against a safari park in Hangzhou, eastern Zhejiang province for requiring “face scans” for entry, according to the local court.

In addition to mobile users, Chinese social media site Weibo was forced to roll out real-name registration in 2012.

Oversight of social media has ramped up in recent years as part of the Chinese government’s push to “promote the healthy, orderly development of the Internet, protect state security and public interest.”

China Forces Phone Companies to Collect Face Scans of Phone Owners


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Facial Recognition

A passenger goes through a security check channel fitted with a facial-recognition system at a subway station in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

High-precision facial recognition technology is being tapped by Beijing’s subway operator in the city’s packed stations to spot anyone who is already in the “bad books” with local police, while other commuters can be spared the hassle of going through manual security checks before going through turnstiles.

This is certainly good news for the more than 12.3 million passengers who take the Beijing subway on any given day.

The system’s 394 stations, already crammed with people, are grappling with worsening congestion during peak hours as each and every passenger has to be searched for security reasons before entry.

This arrangement means that the usual pushing and shoving in subway systems in all major cities starts at station entrances and inside concourses in Beijing, well before one can get abroad a train.

Packed train platforms are a familiar sight on Beijing’s subway. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing papers report that passengers will be categorized according to their “criminal records” that are constantly updated by the public security ministry and then subject to different levels of “checks and searches.”

Once someone enters the frame of a security camera, his data will be shown immediately based on powerful facial recognition. Those with no offenses or convictions will be channeled to fast lanes and only need to pass metal detector gates to enter a station.

It has been reported that Beijing’s subway operator will build its own facial database of travelers to target “fare evaders, pickpockets or those who cause a nuisance on a train.”

To ensure the effectiveness of the new technology, all passengers are mandated to take off their masks before going through checks.

The trial of the new system, to be developed in partnership with the Zhejiang-based tech firm HikVision, is a bid to speed up checks to keep up with the pace of Beijing’s subway expansion and ridership growth, when by 2022 it is estimated that 17 million people will travel on Beijing’s 1,000-kilometer subway each day.

Shanghai is also trying out facial recognition technology co-developed with Alibaba in its subway network. Photo: Xinhua

Other mega-cities in China like Shanghai are also trying out new technology in their public transportation systems.

Station staff will be wearing augmented reality-enabled smart glasses with cameras live-streaming footage to the control center to monitor passenger flows and respond to emergencies at subway stations serving the National Exhibition and Convention Center, part of Shanghai’s preparatory work ahead of next week’s China International Import Expo, to be opened by President Xi Jinping.

Station staff will rub shoulders with passengers and surveil black spots not covered by CCTV cameras, and the glasses they wear provide live broadcasts, while footage from a fixed camera is only from one angle.

A Chinese police officer wears a pair of facial-recognition smart glasses at Zhengzhou East Railway Station in Zhengzhou in China’s central Henan province. Photo: AFP

There have also been reports about police officers using smart glasses to identify “wanted persons, fugitives and deadbeats” among crowds in railway stations, at airports and even at admission gates of popular gigs in cities throughout China. Such smart glasses display digital content alongside what a wearer sees.

Big brother is watching you in a nation of cameras
China ‘Big Brother’ for its surveillance tech. But US uses it too
Jewelry to avoid facial recognition cameras
China-made cameras focus on HK protesters

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Digital Despotism

China combines cutting-edge “surveillance” technology with traditional communist “police-state” repression to create 21st-century “Orwellian Dystopia,” a term maybe too tame to describe it’s ever-expanding “digital despotism” in China and beyond.

“Skynet, Sharp Eyes, Operation Knocking on Doors, Web-Cleaning Soldier” are just some of the terms used by China’s state security to describe the “draconian” surveillance systems deployed to “identify, monitor, track, and persecute” scores of millions of Chinese citizens, especially “ethnic minorities and religious groups.”

China’s high-tech surveillance technologies and systems employ advanced “Artificial Intelligence” (AI) to process and analyze massive amounts of data collected from “facial recognition, DNA sampling, bio-metrics, GPS, ubiquitous, high-resolution CCTV cameras, intrusive mobile phone apps, desktop computer software, smart TVs, and drones.”

However, these high-tech capabilities are also combined with old-fashioned “networks of informants”, a constant and invasive police presence, outposts and patrols, all “integrated” with massive computerized databases.

“China has adopted the most pervasive surveillance system in the world, and it not only uses new tech to surveil but to link people to their police record, their social information, their name, and their identity number,” said James Andrew Lewis, a technology expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “It’s the combination of big data, facial recognition, and pervasive surveillance that’s made it the most intrusive thing that anyone has ever seen.”

This surveillance system is composed primarily of three tracks:

1) Massive, unprecedented collection of personal data.
2) near total surveillance via technical and human means.
3) data analysis and management via advanced AI and military-style coordination operations.

The final goal is a sophisticated national database allowing security forces to “track, analyze and control” every individual in China in real, or near real time.

While many aspects of these surveillance systems are being employed throughout China, “Xinjiang Autonomous Region” in China’s northwest, home of most of the country’s Uyghur Muslim population, has been serving as the testing ground or laboratory for some of the most intrusive and repressive techniques. In 2017 President Xi Jinping declared he was creating a “wall of steel” around the region. Once proven in Xinjiang, these surveillance systems are rolled out all over China.

Fergus Ryan, an analyst and China expert at the “Australian Strategic Policy Institute” (ASPI), said that the technology has been deployed as “part of Beijing’s repression of the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic minorities” and that Xinjiang was “a major testing ground for these types of surveillance technologies”. 

China has become the nefarious global leader in collecting “extremely sensitive and personal data” from its citizens. According to “Human Rights Watch”, Chinese authorities in Xinjiang are collecting a full range of bio-metrics including DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types of all residents in the region between the ages of 12 and 65 in order to build a region-wide “biometric” database.

This data collection is done primarily via a specially designed mobile app while DNA and blood types are being collected through a free annual physical exams program called “Physicals for All.” In 2016, Xinjiang police bureau’s also began collecting residents’ voice samples for a national voice database that could be used to identify any voice during recorded phone conversations.

For people designated as focus personnel or “key individuals,” full bio-metrics samples must be taken regardless of age. These “important persons to be controlled” are those people the Chinese authorities consider threatening to “regime stability,” namely members of ethnic minorities such as “Uyghurs” and “illegal” religious groups.

According to Human Rights Watch, this “biometric collection scheme” is detailed in an official document called “The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Working Guidelines on the Accurate Registration and Verification of Population” or “The Population Registration Program.”

A major part of China’s “data collection” effort also includes the expansive, dragnet-style “Operation Knocking on Doors” launched nationwide in early 2017. This operation sends police officers to “investigate and photograph” religious believers under false pretexts, as part of a broader surveillance system to specifically “track religious people nationwide.”

The operation collects information on the activities of religious groups listed as “xie jiao” ( heterodox teachings) and conducts networked surveillance of each believer. Data is stored in dedicated computers of the “Domestic Security Protection Bureau.” Investigators also search for “evidence” that individuals are “promoting” religion. If found, further investigation is pursued. These investigations then lead to comprehensive, “non-stop surveillance” of the individuals through projects “Sharp Eyes” and “Skynet,” as well as other “electronic” monitoring systems.

As noted by the Los Angeles Times, China has installed 176 million public and private surveillance cameras for its 1.4 billion people, including some on every block in the capital of Beijing. Moreover, China plans to have as many as 626 million cameras installed nationwide by 2020. As more CCTV cameras are installed in rural areas and they increasingly incorporate advanced facial and the latest “gait walking styles recognition”, China will soon become the world’s most “monitored” society.

According to a ”Radio Free Asia” report, the company behind the “Sharp Eyes” project claims to have developed the platform systems using home televisions and smart phones to push video surveillance into people’s homes. Beginning in 2016, Xinjiang police also started using “hand-held and desktop scanning devices” that can break into smart phones and “extract and analyze” all information contained on it. These surveillance technologies are now quietly spreading across China. Reuters reported that this technology is now “encroaching” into cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

Residents in Xinjiang are also required to install GPS tracking devices in their vehicles, and those who “refuse” are not allowed to buy “fuel” for their vehicles. Local authorities have even set up “facial” recognition systems that would alert them when “targeted individuals” moved more than 1,000 feet beyond their home or workplace. Additionally, since 2017 Xinjiang residents are being required to install an app called “Jingwangweishi”, “Web Cleaning Soldier” to help authorities monitor “cell phones.” All Chinese residents are also increasingly being “surveilled” by the state via a “backdoor” in the vastly popular social media app “WeChat.”

With data collected on a person’s every aspect and movement, artificial intelligence is needed to process the vast volume of information for hundreds of millions of Chinese. AI “can trace patterns, map relationships, and note deviations. For house church leaders, this makes it difficult to organize, secretly hold services, or inform outsiders when persecution occurs,” according to Dean Cheng, an expert on China at the “Heritage Foundation.”

To manage and analyze the massive amounts of information from so many sources, Chinese authorities are implementing a military style “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” to aggregate data about people that “detects deviations from what authorities deem normal,” reports Human Rights Watch. The program generates “lists of subjects” for police to round up and question; many are detained and then sent to “re-education” camps.

Integrated joint operations is a new People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doctrine that depends on a hi-tech C4ISR “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance system.” China’s application of this ”military doctrine and technology” to civilian policing demonstrates the extent to which “policing in Xinjiang is being militarized.”

Ultimately all this surveillance and data collection is designed for one purpose. While Chinese authorities claim the unprecedented “surveillance, tracking and monitoring” is used to “prevent crime, improve health or other benign purposes”, it’s overarching goal is to “control and repress” the people, especially the Uyghurs and religious groups.

This was shockingly highlighted when a Dutch cyber expert discovered a massive unsecured Chinese online database that showed China is using what is being called a “Muslim Tracker” to closely monitor over 2.5 million people, primarily Uyghurs in Xinjiang Region. Australia’s ABC News reported that Victor Gevers, a researcher with GDI Foundation, found “names, identification card numbers, birth dates, employers and locations on an unprotected database run by SenseNets,” a Chinese company contracted by the Chinese police.

Reports showed that the database included details of 2,565,724 people, and 6.7 million geographical coordinates showing the “locations” of each of these citizens over the last 24 hours. According to Gevers, the data was tagged with descriptions such as “mosque, hotel, internet cafe, restaurant, police station”, and other places where surveillance cameras were often found. Locations were apparently recorded as individuals passed fixed “camera” positions that provide a video feed for “facial” recognition.

“This insecure face recognition/personal verification solution is built and operated for only one goal,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s a ‘Muslim tracker’ funded by Chinese authorities in the province of Xinjiang to keep track of Uyghur Muslims.” By 2020 China plans to use these comprehensive surveillance systems to track all Chinese.

However, the Chinese may not “limit” their monitoring of people to China. The recent arrest in Vancouver, Canada of Meng Wanzhou, deputy chairwoman of the board and chief financial officer of China’s largest private company, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd has heightened concerns that China intends to spread its surveillance techniques globally, well beyond China through companies like Huawei; even potentially “hijacking” the next generation worldwide “5G network” for these purposes.

To make the “Orwellian” picture complete in China, western technological giants such as Apple are “complicit” with China in its repression by censoring human rights and religious liberty websites and apps.  January 2019 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched a new app available for both Apple and Android platforms, “Xi Study (Xue Xi) Strong Nation”, available from the website xuexi.cn. This app, provided by the “Propaganda and Public Opinion Research Center of the Central Propaganda Department of the CCP”, is mandatory for all CCP cadres and members.

The app’s name includes a word game in Chinese. “Xi” is the President’s last name but is also the second character in the Chinese word “xuexi”, which means “to study.” The implication is that the study of the President’s word is the most important study of them all. Apple, which “censors” other apps, quickly ”obliged” the CCP, as did other platforms; and the “Xi Study” app is now up and running at full speed.

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Smile to Pay in China

Cash is at times hard to find in today’s China, where QR codes are in use at virtually all shops and roadside stalls throughout the nation.

Nowadays, a quick scan using the WeChat or AliPay app on your smart phone is all it takes to make an instant payment, saving you from the hassles of tending the exact amount or ending up with a pocket full of filthy coins.

Now Chinese tech giants want to make that process even simpler: without even the need for a smart phone, all you might need to do is glance at a camera before you are free to go with your shopping. This could even be of particular use when your phone is running out of power or you find yourself somewhere with poor cellular coverage.

Alipay has recently released its latest facial scanning payment product, Dragonfly, which slashes access and installation costs for merchants by 80% compared with the previous generation.

Seeing the huge potential in facial recognition payment, Tencent’s WeChat Pay and UnionPay, the other dominant players on the Chinese market, are also gearing up to roll out their solutions.

Just like Apple’s Face ID, a facial recognition system developed for the iPhone and iPad Pro, similar systems allow biometric authentication for making payments.

Cameras, sensors, algorithms and processing speed are the keys to a system’s effectiveness. One sensor projects a grid of small infrared dots onto a user’s face, and a camera reads the resulting pattern and generates a 3D facial map and compares it with the registered face using a secure subsystem, which can recognize faces with glasses, clothing, makeup, and facial hair, and is even able to adapt to changes in appearance over time.

Xue Hongyan, director of the internet financial center under the Suning Financial Research Center, told the Beijing Business Daily that facial payment could free users from their mobile phones and elevate their ease and experience when shopping.

However, just as when QR-code-based payments set out to replace hard cash, some are skeptical about the privacy and security of the pay-with-your-face fad.

While settling a bill is as easy as a simple glance, information about one’s face, gender etc is collected by a vendor and payment facilitator, which can be easily leaked if not managed properly.

Risk of false positives are also a concern, and questions are being asked about what if someone wears a convincing facial mask of another one to make the victim to pay for the bills? And how about twins?

For those who are willing to pay via facial recognition but have doubts, combined verification such as setting up an additional pass code is recommended to beef up the security of their bank accounts.

“Millennial’s always love to embrace new technologies, but there are risks. But for those conservative types who stick to cash and think it’s the safest way, there are also risks of fake banknotes or simply losing your wallet,” noted a participant on a forum managed by the People’s Daily.

Building Leadership Communities and Citywide Movements

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