A few months ago we covered how the latest Chinese technology in the world of surveillance had led to a man being arrested after face recognition technology linked to a police ‘wanted’ database picked him out from a crowd attending a concert.
Other Chinese who may have been avoiding the authorities could well have taken note and come to the conclusion that they could escape a similar fate by wearing a facemask wide brimmed hat or large sunglasses. Chinese vendors of fake moustaches and beards have quite probably seen an uptick in business.
However, the latest Chinese surveillance technology means that the noose is being tightened even further. Obscuring one’s face will soon no longer cut the mustard after Chinese tech firm Watrix unveiled its new ‘gait recognition’ software that can recognise an individual from up to 50 metres away based only on the way they walk and their standing posture.
Watrix’s software has not quite reached the stage where this can be done in real time. However, it can now scan an hour of footage in 10 minutes and pick out individuals whose faces are not visible by identifying their walk. Facial recognition software is already widely used in China, with cameras in most public places. And in Beijing and Shanghai local police forces have already started supplementing the existing tech with Watrix’s software.
In theory, surveillance technology is employed in China to keep public order, identify jaywalkers and lead the authorities to anyone wanted for a criminal offence. However, with officials in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang having expressed an interest in the Watrix technology there are concerns that it might be turned to furthering the alleged suppression of Muslim minorities. The UN estimates that as many as 1 million Chinese citizens from the province who belong to Muslim minorities have been detained by the authorities.
Chinese authorities call the camps those detained are held ‘vocational training centres’. International observers say they are detention camps. Biometric tools such as Watrix’s gait recognition, most of which use artificial intelligence and have often received government funding, are being combined under a broad surveillance system being called the ‘Golden Shield Project’. The government has tripled spending on domestic security over ten years, with the annual budget now standing at around £137 billion.
How the latest technology in the world of AI is used is currently a matter of international debate. From insurers using surveillance software to combat financial fraud by analysing the micro facial expressions of claimants to gait recognition potentially being a useful addition to home security systems, there are many potentially useful and positive applications of the technology. However, its growing sophistication and the way it can be potentially be used by governments or companies also raises serious human rights questions. It’s a debate than can be expected to intensify in volume over coming years as the use of software such as Watrix’s in public spaces becomes more common.