Chinese police are increasingly relying on artificial intelligence as they take the motto “you can run, but you can’t hide” to a whole new level.
In less than two months, police in three cities across the country caught three different suspected criminals at concerts of popular Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung.
Facial recognition technology identified the men as they passed through security checkpoints, according to state media.
Although the three suspects were all wanted for relatively minor crimes, the string of concert arrests has generated headlines throughout China, prompting the star to address the issue.
“I thank them for attending my concerts,” Cheung told reporters. “But it did give everyone food for thought: If you steal, you’ll get caught no matter where you go.”
Police in Luoyang, a central Chinese city where Cheung plans to hold a concert in July, have tweeted: “Jacky, we are ready!”
Luoyang police are not alone in their enthusiasm. State media has highlighted a growing number of areas – including in some unlikely places – where sophisticated facial recognition is being deployed.
Traffic police in Shenzhen in late April installed dozens of high-tech devices in the southern Chinese metropolis, targeting jaywalkers and scooter-riding couriers who are known to flout traffic rules.
“Wearing helmets or hats? You will still be recognized for sure!” the police warned in a social media post.
“Our facial recognition devices are not affected by weather or skin tones – and our algorithms can detect people even when they turn sideways, lower their heads, partially cover their faces, or in high-brightness, backlit or crowded conditions.”
Just a week after the system’s soft launch, Shenzhen traffic police said they had caught violators in almost 900 cases and planned to expand its use.
Other success stories cited by state media range from local authorities scanning more than 2 million faces at security checkpoints at a beer festival in eastern China and capturing 25 runaway criminals, to railway police wearing facial recognition-capable glasses at hub stations during the busy lunar New Year travel season and catching seven fugitives.
High-tech surveillance isn’t limited to law enforcement in China, either. Last year, the Temple of Heaven park in Beijing found itself in the spotlight when it installed facial recognition in public bathroom to stop people from stealing toilet paper.
A high school in Hangzhou in eastern China last week unveiled a system that would allow the recording and real-time analysis of students’ facial expressions in classrooms, according to state media. If the system categorizes a student as “non-attentive,” an alert will be sent to the teacher.
Already, the widespread of artificial intelligence-powered surveillance is alarming some people.
A Chinese expression that roughly translates as “it’s extremely scary when you really think about it” is often among the top comments on social media discussions on this issue, echoing a sentiment long expressed by human rights activists.
“As conceived, these systems will lead to enormous national and regional databases containing sensitive information on broad swaths of the population, which can be kept indefinitely and used for unforeseen future purposes,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement earlier this year.
“Such practices will intrude on the privacy of hundreds of millions of people – the vast majority of whom will not be suspected of crime.”
While the authorities have repeatedly assured people of their privacy as the use of facial recognition widens in law enforcement, even the People’s Daily – the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper – acknowledged rising public concerns in an article last week.
“It’s normal for people to feel nervous,” it said. “Regulations must be enacted and red lines must be drawn – government agencies need to strike a balance between governing and protecting people.”