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Skynet in China: Real-life ‘Person of Interest’ spying in real time

News Analysis
Sep 26, 20174 mins

AI married to CCTV surveillance in China uses facial recognition and GPS tracking to overlay personal identifying information on people and cars in real time.

surveillance camera in x-ray form
Credit: Thinkstock

If you’ve seen the TV series “Person of Interest,” then you might recall that during the opening narration from Season One, Harold Finch would say, “You are being watched. The government has a secret system, a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror but it sees everything.”

I was reminded of that when I saw a GIF that appears as if it could be a Chinese version of the show. Except it is not fictional TV. It is a CCTV clip showing current surveillance in China. Thanks to artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition technology, GPS tracking and 20 million CCTV cameras, China’s sadly named “Sky Net” system demonstrates just how creepy real-time surveillance can be.

According to a documentary that ran on China Central Television, the security cameras use facial recognition to identify each person and then overlay a popup of personal information on the screen by the person. Descriptions include details such as age, gender, and other features such as clothing color. This happens in real time.

The system knows who is who because Chinese people are reportedly given a photo national ID by the age of 16, and the data is stored in the Chinese government’s database. That makes it easy to tag and track people. The stored data from the CCTV footage can later be searched, allegedly for “wanted individuals.” The police are notified if the system identifies “criminals in the database.”

The advanced surveillance system also identifies vehicles, tagging them with types, colors.

You can watch the surveillance video on the Daily Mail website.

The Daily Mail went as far to call this the “world’s most advanced video surveillance system.” Whether that is true or not, most governments don’t brag to the general public about how advanced their surveillance is. The Chinese government released the surveillance video allegedly so the people in China can see how the monitoring system “can help people search.”

“Sky Net” surveillance system

China began building its nationwide surveillance system “Sky Net” in 2005. It was upgraded several times, but by 2015, Sky Net covered 100 percent of Beijing. The same year, China launched Operation Sky Net to hunt down “fugitive corrupt officials.” The newly released surveillance video is part of Sky Net, but China’s Operation Sky Net 2017 is allegedly aimed at hunting down corruption suspects abroad.

Mission creep happens everywhere, and facial recognition technology in Shenzhen started being used to “identify jaywalkers; names and pictures go up on a screen.” Facial recognition is even being used in public restrooms. For example, in restrooms at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park, you have your face scanned before a machine spits out a 24-inch strip of toilet paper. It will not dispense more to the same person until nine minutes have passed.

Orwellian nightmare: Citizen Score

In 2015, China moved ahead with its plan of a “social credit system,” better known as Citizen Score, which was linked to 1.3 billion Chinese citizens’ national ID cards, and scored each citizen on their behavior. The ACLU said the system leveraged “all the tools of the information age—electronic purchasing data, social networks, algorithmic sorting—to construct the ultimate tool of social control.”

A Citizen Score, tied to credit scores, could go down if a “friend” in social media did or said something the government considered inappropriate, by buying certain video games, posting political comments without permission or posting anything that might embarrass the Chinese regime.

Other examples of surveillance in China date back to at least 2008 when taxicabs were fitted “with video cameras and satellite technology that transmits a live audio feed of what is being said in the cab back to a computer for monitoring and linguistic analysis.” Radio Free Asia added, “In some cities, the cameras automatically take at least one picture of every occupant as a back-up in case of later criminal activity.”

In 2013, NPR reported that Chinese state security agents “privately confirmed turning cellphones into listening devices.” Phones were used to eavesdrop, track movements and arrest activists or criminals. Since then, we’ve learned that law enforcement in other countries, including the U.S., resort to the same tactics.

I don’t know about you, but I was creeped out by the video showing how advanced surveillance in real time can be. The question is, does China really have the most advanced video surveillance system, or is it the only government that is willing to go on record and admit it?

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.