China is implementing the world’s largest real-time facial recognition system in order to bring all citizens under constant surveillance. Dubbed “Skynet,” over 20 million cameras have already been established across the country, with hundreds of millions more planned to be set up by 2020.
Caught on camera
Known in Chinese as “Tianwang,” Skynet was launched in 2005. While the cams are being sourced from Dahua and HikVision, the AI that actually conducts the surveillance has been implemented by SenseTime. Thousands of criminals have reportedly been caught by law agencies thanks to the wide network of cameras.
In 2017, BBC journalist John Sudworth was given a special demonstration of the tech by a local police control room. They took his mug shot and allowed him to “escape.” In less than seven minutes, the authorities had found him. A similar experiment by a Chinese college student saw him being “arrested” in just about 5 minutes, even though the police had given him 10 minutes to “escape.”
While authorities claim that the AI system will only be used against criminals, human rights activists say that Beijing is simply laying the groundwork for a 1984-style system of absolute control over the public. “The intention of these systems is to weave a tighter net of social control that makes it harder for people to plan action or push the government to reform,” Maya Wang, Senior China Researcher at Human Rights Watch, said to Fortune.
Beijing has implemented the surveillance network in the controversial Xinjiang region where millions of Uyghur Muslims are being monitored 24/7 by state agencies. “The Muslim-dominated villages on China’s western frontier are testing facial-recognition systems that alert authorities when targeted people venture more than 300 meters (1,000 feet) beyond designated ‘safe areas,’” according to Bloomberg.
China is also using the system as a shaming tool to influence people’s behavior. In Shenzhen, a crossing reportedly has a giant display that shows pictures of people who crossed the road illegally or with scant regard for traffic rules. The authorities expect the fear of public shaming to prevent people from jaywalking.
The Communist Party’s obsession with total control over its citizens does not stop at Skynet. Beijing is developing birdlike drones to monitor large areas of a region from the skies. Known by their code name “Dove,” about 30 government bodies have already tested out such drones in five provinces. The Xinjiang region is a prime testing ground for the new surveillance tech.
The project is being developed by Song Bifeng, a professor at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xian. “The scale is still small… We believe the technology has good potential for large-scale use in the future… it has some unique advantages to meet the demand for drones in the military and civilian sectors,” Yang Wenqing, an associate professor at the School of Aeronautics at Northwestern and a member of Song’s team, said to South China Morning Post.
While existing drones operate on rotor blades or fixed wings, the Doves are said to feature wings with a flapping action that perfectly mimics bird movements. The idea is to make them so indistinguishable from real birds that people on the ground never suspect that the birds they see in the sky are actually surveillance machines of the government.