China has spent much of this year trying using surveillance tools to figure out where people are. The outbreak of a major epidemic challenged the government to track people’s movements. Local governments need to know who's arriving on trains from epidemic hotspots, and, inside cities, who has been exposed to super-spreader events like the one at Beijing's Xinfadi market.

The country has millions of surveillance cameras, and its companies are world leaders in face recognition. But this technology has been missing in action in China’s contact tracing efforts, while companies like Sensetime and Hikvision have seen their revenues hit during the pandemic.The video cameras that line China’s streets seem to have played no role in contact tracing. Systems to monitor social media turned out to be ineffective. Covid-19 simply ran circles around China's surveillance apparatus.

Bottom line: China has been building a camera and face recognition-based surveillance system for years and this should have been its time to shine. Instead, star surveillance companies have seen revenue decline as contracts are delayed or canceled. As a new generation of infection tracking systems are rolled out, authorities are relying on a totally different model pioneered by consumer-oriented tech giants Tencent and Alibaba.

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Chris Udemans

Christopher Udemans is a Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covers Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, and cybersecurity. You can contact him at chrisudemans [at] technode [dot] com.