China extends usage of face-recognising smart sunglasses

How reassuring is “nothing to hide, nothing to fear?”

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Last month, Chinese police began testing the use of sunglasses with built-in facial recognition software. Well, the trial has proved so successful that the scheme has been extended – offering extra security as Chinese parliament voted to abolish term limits for the presidency according to The VergeThe glasses were used to check both travellers and car number plates against the government's blacklist of those that might seek to disrupt proceedings – though some fear that this extended beyond criminals, and into journalists, political dissidents and human rights activists. 

That won't make people feel any more confident about the use of the technology in policing more generally, but as the original news story from last month shows, early trials show the glasses to be surprisingly efficient.

The original story continues below

One of the reasons Google Glass never caught on – aside from the fact it would make you look like someone badly cosplaying the Borg – was that the idea of covertly photographing and filming what you could see made everyone feel distinctly uneasy. Well, according to news reports in Chinese state media, China has really doubled down on that USP, equipping police officers deployed around a busy train station in Zhengzhou with sunglasses that recognise the faces of suspects.

The sunglasses can reportedly identify a person in 100 milliseconds and can recognise 100,000 faces from an internal database, making them handy for spotting fugitives in busy areas – like the train station in which they are being tested. After a photograph is taken, if the glasses find a match, information including the suspect’s name and address will be sent to the officer, allowing them to make an arrest. It’s a whole lot faster than manually requesting an ID from suspects and cross-checking with a database.

The early results are impressive in a slightly unsettling kind of way: so far, seven suspects wanted for crimes ranging from hit-and-runs to human trafficking have been caught, with a further 26 people found to be using fake IDs.

Surveillance state

It’s hard not to be impressed with the technology on display, but it’s important not to be so in awe of the tech that you lose perspective on what it represents. Alongside the glasses, China is building what it has called “the world’s biggest camera surveillance network,” and has plans to install an additional 400 million face-recognising cameras on top of the 170 million already in use. This would be eyebrow-raising anywhere in the world but is even more so in China which has a fairly blasé relationship with human rights.

The mantra of “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” isn’t hugely reassuring at the best of times, but is even less so in China, with the potential to track political dissidents frighteningly plausible. Or, as Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch put it last year: “It is frightening that Chinese authorities are collecting and centralising ever more information about hundreds of millions of ordinary people, identifying persons who deviate from what they determine to be ‘normal thought,’ and then surveilling them.

“Until China has meaningful privacy rights and an accountable police force, the government should immediately cease these efforts.”

Suffice it to say, the government didn’t take much notice of this well-meaning intervention, and pressure upon the country to take human rights more seriously has eased up considerably in recent years as it becomes the world’s leading economic force. Just a week ago, the Chinese state media praised Theresa May for being “pragmatic” and ignoring those that “keep pestering May to criticise Beijing”.

The potential for these smart sunglasses to streamline abuses of power will likely make such interventions more necessary, even as they become less frequent.

Image: Barockschloss used under Creative Commons

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