Developments in hardware, software, AI, and networking in China have allowed the country to make huge leaps in security. As AI and networking allow the systems to become smarter and connected to more databases, they are increasingly proactive and effective. Many of these advances have come with little fanfare at home, but others have caught public attention, stirring an outcry over the invasion of privacy in public spaces.

China’s surveillance networks are growing faster than anywhere else in the world, and so here we look back on a year when China pushed ahead with watching itself.

Facial recognition

2017 was the year facial recognition became mainstream in China. While it may not be in everyday use by many just yet, improving accuracy (and Chinese technology groups continue to win international facial recognition competitions) has allowed the concept to be deployed in more locations. Beyond using one’s face for paying in shops and checking into hotels, the technology is being put to use to pick wanted people out of crowds. As well as finding those already suspected of committing a crime, uses of facial recognition to identify people doing things such as jaywalking are a way for authorities to influence behavior

CCTV surveillance cameras Hikvision Frank Hersey
Surveillance cameras including Hikvision models for sale in a Beijing electronics market (Image credit: Frank Hersey)

Updates continue to emerge of a national facial recognition system that would be connected to cameras. The South China Morning Post reported on the progress of the system that is thought to be able to recognize any of China’s 1.3 billion citizens in under 3 seconds.

Putting a similar system to the test in Guizhou, a BBC reporter was tracked down in minutes after arranging with local police to pretend to go on the run in Guiyang.

Humans are not the only things being monitored: surveillance systems have been installed on certain road networks which can identify cars by the model and tiny changes and scratches unique to a vehicle, whatever license plate it’s sporting.

Surveillance cameras

A report found that China is expected to have 626 million security cameras by 2020, up from 176 million in 2016. The Chinese government owns a 42% stake in Hikvision, a company that makes a fifth of all cameras currently sold worldwide. It isn’t clear how many of the cameras that will be installed in China will be enabled with facial recognition, but one company alone, Dahua Technologies, sold over a million facial recognition cameras last year.

Beyond facial recognition, camera systems are now using other metrics including gait to determine people’s identity and gender, ethnicity and age linking. These then link people to their vehicles and to any other people they are spotted with.

Shuidi live stream of a noodle shop in Beijing (Image credit: screen shot)

Smaller scale surveillance hit the headlines after a division of internet security company Qihoo 360, Qihoo 360 Smart Camera, caught public attention with its online platform for security cameras. Individuals and small business owners bought inexpensive CCTV cameras which easily connect to WiFi rather than needing full installation. However, camera owners were connecting the feeds from their cameras to Qihoo 360’s security camera streaming platform, Shuidi. Anyone walking into shot could be watched by anyone anywhere in the world logging into Shuidi. You could even leave comments on what you saw. The fact that these cameras were installed in public places such as restaurants and even children’s dance classes eventually led to public outcry over personal privacy and the company issuing a statement that it was shutting down the Shuidi platform.

2017 ended with the Qihoo 360 starting the operating of China’s first national cybersecurity innovation center.

Missing people–enabling human surveillance

Technology is also being used to help find missing people in several ways. Surveillance cameras can pick out individuals, but another approach sends out mass alerts for individuals to do the searching. These systems push alerts to smartphone app users close to the last known whereabouts of missing persons. 2017 saw improvements and greater adoption to the extent that Bytedance’s Toutiao became the thing that found the most missing people in China.

Xiaomi kids smartwatch
Xiaomi children’s smartwatch with tracking functionality (Image credit: Xiaomi website)

Local authorities in Guizhou have acquired 100,000 smartwatches to give to children whose parents have left them behind in their search for work in distant cities. The watches let the police monitor the whereabouts of children at all times. But on the plus side, they come with SIM packages that let the children and their parents be in touch.

Finally, surveillance cameras in schools became a hot topic in 2017. The emphasis placed on education, a persistent lack of trust and accountability, emerging discussion on personal privacy and the fact that many parents live far away from their school-age children and may want more opportunities to keep an eye on them has created a context that means the addition of surveillance equipment in schools has proved highly divisive.

Beijing locations of Shuidi cameras broadcasting live footage (Image credit: Shuidi screen shot)

A series of scandals in schools and a high-end kindergarten in Beijing made the issue of surveillance in schools a national discussion. While many point out the infringement of privacy, others argue the perceived safety benefits and others point out that the scandals are happening even in schools under surveillance. Qihoo 360 may have shut down its Shuidi platform, but will continue to supply kindergartens with cameras free of charge.

Looking ahead

The coming year is expected to bring more advancements in surveillance technologies and its more mundane applications in shopping and travel. But beyond that, there are already reports of deeper connections between systems and more sophisticated uses of the data collected, for example in pilot scheme in Chongqing that merges private and public surveillance systems.

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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