Deep Dives

Enabler Of Public Safety Or Tools Of A Dystopian Society?

China’s government wants to use AI-powered facial recognition to create a vast national surveillance system. The effort is already well under way: technology developed by Chinese startups reportedly will soon be able to recognize any of the country’s 1.3 billion citizens in less than three seconds.

In some cities, cameras — including tiny ones embedded in police officers’ eyeglasses — scan train stations for criminals. Billboard-size displays show the faces of jaywalkers and shame people who don’t pay their debts by broadcasting their names for all to see. Facial recognition scanners are found everywhere from building entrances to toilet paper dispensers in public restrooms. Other systems track Internet use and communications, hotel stays and train, plane and car travel, leading critics to accuse the Chinese government of abusing the technology to suppress freedoms and control peoples’ movements. The technology being used in China, and now being exported to other parts of the world, has benefited from close ties between the government and many of these startups. The government allows companies to apply their software to huge state data sets, giving Chinese players a competitive advantage over startups elsewhere. The chief executive of SenseTime, which has contracts with China Mobile and with the police department in Chongqing, told the Financial Times in January that the company had “processed 500 million identities for facial recognition. U.S. companies can’t test on so many customers.” SenseTime currently has a valuation of around $4.5 billion, making it the world’s most valuable AI startup, according to the analyst firm CB Insights.

While China may be in the lead when it comes to creating large-scale AI- powered surveillance systems, it is far from being the only country to test their use. Governments the world over have started using facial recognition and sensor technologies to make “smart cities” more efficient by tracking energy use and traffic, helping local police reduce crime, and developing so-called “strong cities” that can effectively combat terrorists with sophisticated surveillance methods.

A Public Backlash

But concerns about privacy and government control have led to a backlash. Singapore’s plans to install such technology on street lamp posts led to a public outcry. In the U.S., the use of facial recognition software on police body-cams, which the American Civil Liberties Union says is “categorically unethical to deploy because of the technology’s privacy implications, technical imperfections and potentially life-threatening biases,” has led to calls for Congress to pass legislation controlling the technology’s use. “There has been a public backlash to some of those practices, and it is important that we learn from that and don’t lose the benefits that the technology can bring,” says Michael O’Connell, vice president and executive advisor for governance of public safety systems at NEC, a Japanese provider of surveillance technologies. “The lesson is that use of surveillance technology needs to be done in a lawful and transparent way so that citizens see digitalization as helping them rather than have the technology itself transposed into a threat.”

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.