How the coronavirus is hampering China’s surveillance state

by Caroline Bottger

Coronavirus precautions are hobbling China’s extensive facial recognition system. Mandatory face mask rules in two provinces, including the city of Wuhan where the outbreak started, are preventing people from performing everyday tasks that require a scan of the person’s face, such as paying for goods, entering and exiting buildings, and of course, being under the watchful eye of Big Brother.

Indeed, as Reuters reported, coronavirus is pushing China’s surveillance state “out of the shadows.” China’s surveillance system is a patchwork of new and old technology that works in concert to track all 1.4 billion of the country’s people. Local police control most of the system, empowering them to track everyone from criminals to unhappy Communist Party members to supporters of the Hong Kong protesters.

Despite the challenges, Chinese AI companies are treating the epidemic as an opportunity to push the technology forward. Megvii, one of China’s AI unicorns valued at $4 billion, announced last Tuesday that it had developed a way to determine whether someone has a fever using thermal cameras to detect body temperature and facial data. Police would then approach the person and instruct them to take precautionary measures.

But scanning faces under masks would be the holy grail. SenseTime, another unicorn valued at $4.5 billion, claims to have cracked it by comparing a person’s face to images of faces on a specific database. While there are currently only plans to use this at the entries and exits of buildings, this potentially groundbreaking innovation could have consequences for Hong Kong anti-government activists, who have relied on face-shielding techniques to avoid being identified by police.

The virus is also preventing crucial collaboration on AI between the U.S. and China. Top Chinese scientists were unable to attend the AAAI (Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence) Conference in the United States due to travel restrictions. “Few areas of technology are not somehow tied to China,” wrote Will Knight in WIRED, and American and Chinese academics work together closely on AI, even if their governments are in economic competition.

Organizations having access to your personal information isn’t just the realm of surveillance in China. In fact, a medical surveillance system put in place after the 2003 SARS epidemic was able to recognize the new coronavirus strain within a week of detection. Western companies are only just catching up: Google’s Health division trained an algorithm to recognize breast cancer tumors on images of mammograms from women in the US and UK, but adoption of AI-driven technology remains low.

China’s surveillance system has attracted intense scrutiny in past months for its role in detaining Uighur Muslims, an ethnic minority living in Xinjiang province — or East Turkestan, to those who support independence from China. The Uighurs have been targets of the Chinese government for decades, but under the auspices of 9/11 and the War on Terror, the Chinese government began to brand any opposition to Chinese rule as “Islamic terrorism.”

Caroline Bottger is a freelance writer who writes on issues of technology, privacy, and security. 
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