China's facial recognition technology is growing rapidly and it's as scary as Minority Report

W.T.M. Why This Matters
The use of facial recognition technology in China is so extensive that it has become alarming. Facial recognition is used for naming and shaming jaywalkers, buying a meal at KFC, and even to predict crimes - just like the movie Minority Report.

Remember the Fast and Furious movie where every character in the film tried to get their hands on the software God's Eye, which allows its user to locate anyone, anywhere via surveillance cameras? Well, it's real, it exists - and it's a whole lot scarier.

According to a spokesperson for Beijing-based facial recognition startup Megvii, that kind of technology has already been achieved and put in place in China, and with a higher degree of accuracy.

For those who find this news alarming, well, there's more.

In China, facial recognition software is so advanced and extensively used that companies such as Ant Financial - the payment affiliate of Alibaba - allows users to purchase products simply by scanning their faces.

The use of facial recognition also extends to college entry exams where the technology is used to identify and prevent "ghost writers (those who sit in exams for other students) from entering. Even one KFC outlet uses it to recommend food choices based on  people's age, gender, and mood.

Facial Recognition Software in KFCPhoto: Tech Fish/Facebook

For those who may wonder about laws meant to protect individual privacy, the problem is that there really aren't any such laws, not until recently.

According to Forbes, China's new rules on facial recognition regulation were put into effect only in June, where citizens may request deletion of personal information or seek remedies if companies were found to be in violation of the cybersecurity law. However, the government is under no such regulation.

For example, there has been an ongoing campaign in China set to reduce jaywalking - video cameras record people who cross the road during a red light then play the clip and displaying their names, personal information, and address on screens nearby to shame them.

Photo: AFP

According to Wang Shengjin, a professor at the Department of Electronic Engineering at Tsinghua University, "facial recognition technologies (in China) are as good as those developed in western countries, but (they) are far ahead when it comes to deploying it commercially."

Facial recognition technologies (in China) are as good as those developed in Western countries, but (they) are far ahead when it comes to deploying it commercially.

- Prof. Wang Shengjin, Department of Electronic Engineering at Tsinghua University

Most alarmingly, Cloud-Walk, a company based in Guangzhou, is now able to analyse the behaviour of people via its surveillance cameras in order to predict crimes. For instance, if a person buys a knife at a store, no alarms will be triggered.

However, if the same person moves on to buy a hammer, ropes, a ski masks, and illegally trespasses over a fence, alarms would sound off all over the place. This behavioural tracking technology is actually being used in cities like Los Angeles and Milan.

But what sets those cities apart from China is that China combines it with facial recognition archives. Using citizen profiles, the police can tell who are most likely to commit crimes.

High risk characters are tracked constantly, paid attention to, and the police are alerted whenever these characters come within close proximity of key facilities or buildings.

Photo: Reuters

With the combination of these technologies, police in China hope to be able to predict crimes even before they actually happen.

Does this all sound like the movie Minority Report meeting real life?