China is making progress on a surveillance system that will connect security cameras nationwide via a cloud to a database of every person’s facial ID profile and a file of their personal details, according to an article in the South China Morning Post. The article has led to a discussion as to whether the system already exists and what its potential dangers might be. 

The SCMP piece updates the story on the Chinese government’s plan to implement a national system that could use surveillance cameras to identify any one of China’s 1.3 billion people, within 3 seconds and with at least 88% accuracy. The project has been underway since 2015 and various different technology companies have been involved and it is facing some technical difficulties.

According to the SCMP investigation, a commercial application using information sourced from the database is not allowed at present (although a change of policy could make this possible).

However, commercial entities are already verifying facial recognition transactions through the photos on users’ ID cards which are part of the existing national identity database. 

For example, Alipay’s KFC facial recognition pilot system does not require any sort of registration at the terminal, and can be used by any Alipay user who has activated the function in the Alipay app. The camera in the Hangzhou branch of KFC where the system is being trialled checks customers’ faces against the ID card photos linked to their Alipay accounts, sources at Ant Financial told TechNode. This is also why foreigners cannot use the system. The source claimed that KFC does not keep any of the data and that third parties cannot intercept it.

The SCMP article notes other concerns raised by the new database thought to be under development, such as the fact that the facial data for the whole Chinese population would come to around 13 terabytes, and the whole database of profiles amounts to around 90 terabytes. As the article points out, this is not actually that big. Indeed, just this week Western Digital released a 14 terabyte hard drive which would allow someone to transfer the facial ID information of the world’s most populous nation onto a single hard drive.

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Frank Hersey

Frank Hersey is a Beijing-based tech reporter who's been coming to China since 2001. He tries to go beyond the headlines to explain the context and impact of developments in China's tech sector. Get in...

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