Plan for Facial Recognition on Beijing Subway Raises Concerns

Chinese state media reported last week that Beijing’s subway system will soon use facial recognition technology to classify and divide passengers into groups for different security screenings. The news was announced at the end of October at a Beijing forum on urban rail transit operation. It is not clear what criteria will be used to classify passengers but efforts are underway to create a face database and develop standardization procedures. The following is a translation of the original Beijing News report by Yan Jianfei:

The 2019 Urban Rail Transit Operation and Development Forum commenced in Beijing this morning (October 29). At the forum, staff from the Beijing Metro and Beijing Rail Transit Command Center revealed that there will be a subway “white list” and a rapid security inspection system created in the near future.This system will use technology to classify passengers for security screening purposes.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of China Urban Rail Transit and Beijing Metro. The “2019 Urban Rail Transit Operation Development Forum” hosted by the Ministry of Transport and Beijing Metro Operation Co., Ltd. was held in Beijing from October 29 to 30. The theme of the forum was “Towards a New Era of Urban Rail Transit Development.” Nearly 300 people from 48 rail transit enterprises and 56 traffic management departments from all over the country participated.

At the forum, Xie Zhengguang, the Party Secretary and Chairman of the Operation Company, revealed that from 2000 to 2019, Beijing Metro opened a total of 21 new lines, increasing the operating mileage by 645 kilometers, 12 times that of the previous 30 years. The operating mileage has expanded from 54 kilometers to 699 kilometers, and the annual passenger traffic has increased from 435 million passengers to 3.848 billion passengers. Since 2000, the Beijing Metro has shortened the voyage interval by 118 times, and the minimum voyage interval of the main lines in the city is now at two minutes, reaching a world-class level.

Regarding subway security, Xie Zhengguang announced the construction of the passenger credit system, plans to establish a subway “white list” and the rapid security inspection channel, and efforts to strengthen punishment for dishonest acts.

Zhan Minghui, director of the Beijing Rail Transit Command Center, said that the current system of screening both passengers and objects at the same time is low in efficiency and contradicts the needs of mass rail transit. In the future, efforts will be taken to continue to optimize the security screening process, vigorously promote the application of multi-channel security screening equipment, and improve the security inspection capability of each machine. Facial recognition technology will be applied to achieve passenger classification in security screening. Research will be conducted to establish passenger classification standards and compile corresponding face databases.

This system will rely on face recognition to identify passengers and provide the information to security personnel, who will then take corresponding security measures based on the information received. [Chinese]

China.org has more from Zhan Minghui on the planned changes:

Zhan Minghui, director of Beijing Rail Traffic Control Center, delivered a keynote speech on Beijing subway’s response measures on large passenger flow at a forum on urban rail transit operation and development held in Beijing Tuesday.

Zhan said that while Beijing subway faces large passenger flow in the rail transit network every day, it has placed huge pressure on security checks of passengers and items.

To improve efficiency, the director said Beijing subway needs to promote the use of multi-channel security check machines and facial recognition technology.

Through setting up standards, the facial recognition system will judge and classify passengers first into groups and inform guards to use relative measures, Zhan said. [Source]

While the new screening procedure is said to be designed to increase efficiency and lower wait times caused by the city’s current subway security measures, concerns are being raised about the potential for increased surveillance. Similar facial recognition systems are also already implemented in several other cities. From Abacus:

Unlike most places, Chinese subways often apply security measures similar to ones seen at an airport. There are bag checks, body checks and metal detectors. And while people aren’t required to take out their electronic devices, passengers are often asked to take a sip of any beverage they’re carrying for security reasons.

[…] All of this has predictably created huge lines of people waiting to enter the station during rush hour. Beijing recorded 3.85 billion subway trips in 2018 alone. On one particular day in July, the subway had 13.7 million trips. That’s a lot of miserable commuters, so subway authorities are looking for a smarter way to pick out the “bad guys.”

[…] Other cities, including Shenzhen and Jinan, have been introducing facial recognition payments into their subway systems as well. And there’s one more technology that could help this tech spread. This year the Beijing Subway became the first in the country to offer 5G coverage across an entire subway line.

Although this is good news for commuters looking to stream games and movies, it could also mean better surveillance. Having 5G in the subway enables 4K video feeds in a highly-populated area. This kind of tech could aid facial recognition and positioning technologies, Chinese state media outlet People’s Posts and Telecommunications News explained earlier this year.[Source]

Beijing authorities earlier announced that they would begin using social credit scores to penalize bad behavior on .

As facial recognition systems become increasingly ubiquitous in China, some netizens have taken to social media to poke fun at the use of the technology. The following is a TikTok video shared on Twitter showing a group of ducks being processed through an automated production line.

Note: Quanjude is a Chinese restaurant known for its Peking roast duck.

@TuCaoFakeNews: At Quanjude, a group of patriotic ducks are observing a newly introduced automated production line! The technical duck explained: We use duck facial and gait recognition technology to ensure complete control over the ducks’ development. We also use big data to monitor various growth indicators in real time to ensure the quality and appearance of the ducks. All of our technology are world leading. The ducks all cheer: “Impressive, Quanjude.” [Chinese]

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