China Uses Artificial Intelligence to Monitor Pedestrians, Vehicles

china-liaoshuangyuan-092517.jpg Guizhou Human Rights Forum member Liao Shuangyuan is shown in an undated photo.

The nationwide rollout of facial recognition and artificial intelligence technology is enabling wide-reaching and detailed surveillance of citizens by Chinese police, recent reports have indicated.

Chinese citizens are already monitored by more than 20 million surveillance cameras as they go about their daily business in public places, according to a recent documentary by state broacaster CCTV.

Now, artificial intelligence can identify and "tag" individual cars, cyclists, and pedestrians with distinguishing information that can be stored and searched for descriptions of wanted individuals.

The smart video tool correctly identifies the gender, age, and clothing descriptions of passersby, as well as distinguishing between motorized and nonmotorized vehicles, recent media reports say.

The technology comes amid a growing trend towards using facial recognition as a secure form of ID, including to identify rail and airline passengers, physical and e-commerce customers, and missing persons cases.

Facial recognition technology is already used by ride-sharing and robotic package delivery apps, airport and college dorm security, and social credit schemes, as well against jaywalkers.

Facial recognition can be used in tandem with the "Skynet" technology to track someone in real time, making a powerful "smart" video surveillance tool that can track many of the country's 1.3 billion people, especially in cities.

Stability maintenance

Rights activist Jia Pin said that government monitoring is typically used for a massive domestic security operation known as "stability maintenance."

"The purpose from their point of view is to monitor those who they think of as unstable elements, including petitioners and dissidents," Jia said. "They use various forms of online surveillance software."

"They are very closely monitored indeed," he said, adding that the authorities routinely breach citizens' right to privacy to this end.

Veteran Beijing political activist Zha Jianguo said technology in itself is neutral.

"It can be used to do both good and evil," Zha said. "There are security cameras everywhere in Beijing."

"When I moved into my new apartment in a residential compound, they told me that one day the police had come over to check the surveillance footage, to seen where I had been."

Stepped-up measures

China's state security police have stepped up round-the-clock monitoring of dissidents and rights activist ahead of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly national congress on Oct. 18.

Activists' cell phones and social media activities are being closely followed by police, which has a direct impact on their activities, Guizhou Human Rights Forum member Liao Shuangyuan said in a recent interview.

"I am now subject to continual monitoring and persecution," Liao said. "There are usually people stationed at the bottom of my apartment building to watch and follow me."

"The Human Rights Forum is only able to meet up sporadically and in small groups these days," he said. "We are down to about 10 percent of our former membership."

Since 2008, taxicabs in Beijing have been fitted with video cameras and satellite technology that transmits a live audio feed of what is being said in the cab back to a computer for monitoring and linguistic analysis.

Official media have reported that cameras and satellite systems have been fitted in taxicabs in other major cities, including the far-west Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, sparking complaints in the press over privacy.

In some cities, the cameras automatically take at least one picture of every occupant as a back-up in case of later criminal activity.

Official media say the cameras in taxis are aimed at guaranteeing the safety of drivers, who suffered an unprecedented number of attacks across the country in 2003.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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