You walk down a street in a city in China. One, two, three surveillance cameras in just a few steps. Minutes later, the police will be able to know practically everything about you.
China is building what has been called “the largest and most sophisticated video surveillance network in the world”. There are currently 170 million closed circuit cameras deployed throughout the country to monitor its 1.3 billion inhabitants.
Over 400 million more will be installed in the next three years. Many of those cameras are equipped with artificial intelligence. Some can recognize faces, others can decipher the age, ethnicity and gender of people.
This implies that the authorities can match the image they take of a passer-by with the photo of the identity document and access all their information, as well as track their movements. When the system recognizes a face marked as suspicious, an alert is sent to a control room and, immediately afterwards, to the police.
In an experiment, the BBC correspondent John Sudworth was detected by one of those cameras in the Chinese city of Guiyang and it took the police only 7 minutes to find him.
“We can relate your face to your car, to your relatives and to the people with whom you were in contact,” Yin Jun, Vice President of Research and Development of Dahua Technology, a Hangzhou company that sold one million cameras, told BBC.
“With enough cameras we can even know who you meet frequently.”
Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?
According to the authorities, this impressive video surveillance system serves not only to prevent crime, but also to predict it.
“For ordinary people, we only extract their data when they need our help,” Xu Yan, a police officer in Guiyang, told the BBC.
“When they do not need help, we do not gather their information, which remains only in our huge database, we only use it when necessary.”
Citizens who have nothing to hide, “have nothing to worry about,” Xu added. But that argument does not convince everyone.
Ji Feng is a critical poet of the government. Live in a Beijing area popular with artists. He believes that his community is seen as a threat.
“You can feel your eyes on you every day,” he told the BBC. “Invisible eyes that always follow you, no matter what you do.” High-tech cameras will do the job of keeping security easier for the police, and if the police mentality does not change, surveillance of dissidents could intensify.”
Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch pointed that the massive data collection system of the Chinese police “is a violation of privacy” and aims to “follow and predict the activities of the dissidents.”
China has no independent courts and lacks laws that protect privacy.
The producers of these cameras are aware that their products arouse great questions.
“There is a certain level of discomfort,” Daniel Chau, marketing director of Dahua Technology, told the BBC.
“I think that technology by itself is a tool for humans, but it can also be a weapon, if it is in the wrong hands, such as in terrorist hands, it can do very bad things.”
What is a reality is that the video surveillance network is expanding in China. Several Chinese and foreign investors are investing their money in technology start-ups that specialize in facial recognition software, according to a Reuters report.
According to the analysis firm IHS Markit, video surveillance, which includes both equipment and video software, moved 6.4 billion dollars in China in 2016.