China’s 170 million surveillance cameras know your face


Jeremy Goldkorn’s selection of the top stories from China on June 27, 2017. Part of the daily SupChina newsletter, a convenient package of China’s business, political, and cultural news delivered to your inbox for free. Subscribe here.

Facial recognition technology boom

Writing and appearing on video in the Wall Street Journal, Josh Chin and Liza Lin report (paywall) that China has 170 million surveillance cameras and is likely to install an additional 450 million cameras by 2020. The government has a huge database of photographs and identities from the national ID card records and numerous other info banks from police and other state organs. And as two leading lights of the artificial intelligence world — Kai-Fu Lee and Andrew Ng — separately told the Sinica Podcast, the key to teaching machines to make decisions is to give them huge sets of data. So it’s no surprise that China is leaping ahead in facial recognition technology:

  • The Journal article says that “unfettered by privacy concerns or public debate, Beijing’s authoritarian leaders are installing iris scanners at security checkpoints in troubled regions and using sophisticated software to monitor ramblings on social media.”
  • Government demand is a boon for private sector tech companies, which are “scooping up unprecedented data on people’s lives through their mobile phones and competing to develop and market surveillance systems for government use.”
  • In May, MIT Technology Review reported that Beijing-based facial recognition startup Face++ was valued at roughly a billion dollars. Technology from Face++ is being used in several apps such as Alipay, a mobile payments app used by more than 120 million people in China, and Didi, China’s dominant ride-hailing company.
  • Some tourist sites in Beijing are using facial recognition to limit the amount of toilet paper that each person can take.
  • One of China’s top universities installed scanners with facial recognition technology in a female dormitory.
  • In a different university, a lecturer is using the technology on his students to check on the boredom levels in class.

China’s ‘number one drug village’

Xinhua News Agency has a follow-up report on Boshe, a coastal village in Lufeng County, Guangdong Province, which became known as “Number One Drugs Village” (第一毒村 dìyī dú cūn) in 2013 when “more than 3,000 armed police with helicopters and speedboats stormed the village,” arrested 183 people, and seized three tonnes of methamphetamine.

Police say that before the 2013 raid, one in five villagers was directly involved in the drug business, and that the entire village was a no-go zone for police.

Trump sours on China, suddenly cares about human rights

Mike Allen at Axios says: “White House sources tell us to look for increasing signs that the afterglow of China President Xi Jinping’s visit to Mar-a-Lago in April has long faded, and say the administration is going to be tougher on the world’s second largest economy.”

  • Allen notes that Trump hugged Prime Minister Narendra Modi of China’s strategic rival India during a visit at the White House on June 26, and that “Steve Bannon and his allies in key trade and policy positions have been agitating for a high-profile economic fight with China.”
  • In news that is no doubt related, the Associated Press says that “the Trump administration is poised to declare China among the world’s worst offenders on human trafficking…putting the world’s most populous country in the same category as North Korea, Zimbabwe and Syria.”

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