Facial Recognition Adoption Raises Eyebrows

This week’s Economist looks at the global growth of facial recognition technology, of which China is both a notable early adopter and a key developer as home to companies including "the world’s first billion-dollar startup from might be called the ‘facial-industrial complex’."

TOURING the headquarters of Megvii in Beijing is like visiting Big Brother’s engine room. A video camera in the firm’s lobby recognises visitors in the blink of an eye. Other such devices are deployed around the office. Some of the images they capture are shown on a wall of video called “Skynet”, after the artificial-intelligence (AI) system in the “Terminator” films. One feed shows a group of employees waiting in front of an elevator with a white frame around every face and the name of each person next to it. Quizzed on the Orwellian overtones of the set-up, Yin Qi, the startup’s chief executive, simply remarks that “this helps catch bad guys.”

[…] Megvii’s and SenseTime’s services are largely founded on good data. They have access to the Chinese government’s image database of 700m citizens, who are each given a photo ID by the age of 16. Chinese government agencies are also valuable customers—more and more of the country’s hundreds of millions of cameras will soon recognise faces. In Shenzhen is used to identify jaywalkers; names and pictures go up on a screen. In Beijing the municipality has started using the to catch thieves of toilet paper in public restrooms (its system also prevents people from taking more than 60 centimetres of paper within a nine-minute period). [Source]

The report points out more examples such as Alibaba’s "Smile to Pay" system which recently rolled out in a Hangzhou KFC offshoot; a convenience store chain’s use of the technology to analyze customer behavior; and face-based authentication at ATMs. While the latter may be convenient for some, it has proved less appealing to others. Last month, South China Morning Post reported that the introduction of facial recognition systems to ATMs in Macau to help combat illegal capital flows had triggered a "staggering" increase in withdrawals from cameraless machines in nearby Hong Kong. A CDT roundup in June noted integration of facial recognition into ride-sharing, robotic package delivery, airport and college dorm security, and social credit schemes, and included more detail on its use against jaywalkers. Last month saw the completed introduction of face and voice scans at Beijing Normal University dorms, an agreement for Baidu to bring its technology to Beijing’s main airport, "with the ‘face as boarding pass’ capability ready for implementation as early as 2018," and the capture of 25 criminal suspects automatically identified at the Qingdao Beer Festival.

State media outlets have celebrated the technology’s varied and pioneering applications as a showcase of China’s burgeoning technological prowess:

Others have shared their encounters with the systems in the wild:

A leader accompanying the Economist article highlights associated political and privacy concerns, warning that "the ability to record, store and analyse images of faces cheaply, quickly and on a vast scale promises one day to bring about fundamental changes to notions of , fairness and trust."

Start with privacy. One big difference between faces and other biometric data, such as fingerprints, is that they work at a distance. Anyone with a phone can take a picture for facial-recognition programs to use. FindFace, an app in Russia, compares snaps of strangers with pictures on VKontakte, a social network, and can identify people with a 70% accuracy rate. Facebook’s bank of facial images cannot be scraped by others, but the Silicon Valley giant could obtain pictures of visitors to a car showroom, say, and later use facial recognition to serve them ads for cars. Even if private firms are unable to join the dots between images and identity, the state often can. China’s government keeps a record of its citizens’ faces; photographs of half of America’s adult population are stored in databases that can be used by the FBI. Law-enforcement agencies now have a powerful weapon in their ability to track criminals, but at enormous potential cost to citizens’ privacy.

[…] In democracies, at least, legislation can help alter the balance of good and bad outcomes. […] Such rules cannot alter the direction of travel, however. Cameras will only become more common with the spread of wearable devices. Efforts to bamboozle facial-recognition systems, from sunglasses to make-up, are already being overtaken; research from the University of Cambridge shows that artificial intelligence can reconstruct the facial structures of people in disguise. Google has explicitly turned its back on matching faces to identities, for fear of its misuse by undemocratic regimes. Other tech firms seem less picky. Amazon and Microsoft are both using their cloud services to offer face recognition; it is central to Facebook’s plans. Governments will not want to forgo its benefits. Change is coming. Face up to it. [Source]

A third article focuses on a system specifically developed “as a demonstration […] to warn policymakers of the power of machine vision”: one that can identify homosexuality from images of faces with imperfect but considerable accuracy. “In parts of the world where being gay is socially unacceptable, or illegal,” it notes, “such software could pose a serious threat to safety.”

Sixth Tone’s report on the Beer Festival detentions included Shanghai lawyer Liu Chunquan’s warning that "as yet, there is no mature legislation for the use of biological information and related privacy issues, and China still has a long way to go." China Media Project’s David Bandurski voiced similar concern in July following reports of the successful use of facial recognition in identifying and apprehending a child abductor, together with her unharmed three-year-old captive.

In many respects, China leads the world in the application of big data and machine learning to questions of law enforcement and social control. The above success story tells us that local police in China have expedient access not just to residential and other surveillance cameras, but also to national identity databases that can be matched in real time against train or other ticket purchases requiring identification. This, in fact, is just the tip of the iceberg. China is now applying a big data approach to every manner of problem, betraying a dangerous faith in the liberating power of technology, with no public discussion whatsoever about how these assumed advances might entrap citizens within the all-seeing lens of state-controlled machine data.

China is certainly not alone in the development of such technologies. But it stands apart in their actual deployment, which is happening quickly and in the utter absence of scrutiny. [Source]

One sign that authorities recognize the potential sensitivity of related technologies came with a leaked media directive in February, which ordered the deletion of an article on automatic voiceprint analysis and warned outlets, "do not hype related technical content."