China Working Hard for the Big Brother Award

Is surveillance and facial recognition technology acceptable if it’s used in the apprehension of criminals? That’s what Chinese lawmakers think, although some in the West worry it’s an example of selling a surveillance state in a pretty package.


According to the Wall Street Journal, Chinese authorities are using facial recognition technology — already deployed by concert organizers to cut down on scalping by verifying the identities of valid ticket holders — to scan crowds at public events like concerts to nab suspected criminals.

On three separate occasions in the past month, Chinese officials have scanned the crowds at mega-pop star Jacky Cheung’s — lauded as Hong Kong’s “God of Songs” — concerts and have apprehended wanted men based on the accuracy of facial recognition technology.

The first arrest at a concert by Mr. Cheung took place on April 7 in the southeastern city of Nanchang, where security personnel identified a suspect in an “economic crime” with facial-recognition gear.

Police then used a surveillance system to pick out the 31-year-old, who was attending the concert with his wife and friends, from a crowd of more than 60,000 people, state media said.

Then on May 5 in Ganzhou city, police said they arrested a man by using “high-tech measures” during preconcert security checks. Ganzhou police didn’t specify what wrongdoing he is accused of.

On Sunday, minutes before Mr. Cheung started performing in the city of Jiaxing, police identified a male concertgoer through surveillance footage as a potato-seller accused of fraud in a 2015 purchase of roughly 110,000 yuan ($17,200) in spuds.

The rub of this story from a country not known to share Western values when it comes to human rights, is that the Chinese people, and even the pop star himself, are vocally supportive of the technology being used to weed out the undesirables among them.


Privacy groups, according to the WSJ report, note that some facial recognition technology is inaccurate up to 90% of the time, and China is not being exactly forthcoming about the accuracy of the technology they’ve been deploying.

Perhaps the strangest part of all is that Chinese police departments are urging, via social media, the pop star to stage more concerts, presumably to help facilitate their work in nabbing people suspected of crimes.

And then, of course, are the stories where the technology is being deployed in other ways in China, like using it to scan student classrooms to monitor behavior.

Surely the apprehension of criminals — assuming they are proven guilty of their crimes — is not a bad thing, but a line from Orwell’s 1984 seems applicable here: “The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.”


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