China’s facial recognition plan is just another brick in the dystopian wall

via Flickr © Tagosaku (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via Flickr © Tagosaku (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Want a new mobile phone or data plan in China? Submit to facial recognition registration first
  • Just 855 million subscribers to be processed
  • Government says system will safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of citizens in cyberspace

France's Aricem facial recognition system will ride roughshod over European privacy laws but it pales into comparative insignificance when contrasted to China's drive to compel anyone in the country who wants a new mobile handset or data plan to submit to being registered on a new facial recognition programme that will link directly to the PRC's "social credit" system that ranks citizens according to a points system for "good" behaviour that accords with the tenets and expectations of the authorities and dispossesses those whose "bad" behaviour does not meet the norms of the Borg hive mind as ordained by the Politburo.

As TelecomTV reported yesterday, the French government is in an incontinent rush to introduce the 'Alicem' programme, Europe's first compulsory nationwide facial recognition system. It is being promoted as a structure through which every French citizen will be "given a secure digital identity" that will permit easy and trouble-free access to wide range of government, municipal and private services.

It will also make the French state, "much more efficient" a phrase which does nothing to mask the the development of an Orwellian system able, at the push of a button, to identify (or misidentify) citizens going about their daily lives.

Emmanuel Macron is now an extremely unpopular president and stands accused of embracing statism (the belief that the state should control either economic or social policy or both) and, to his many critics, the totalitarian potential of Alicem is prima facie evidence of his arrogance and determination to bring various sectors of the French population to heel by putting everyone on a gargantuan identification database.

In my piece yesterday I made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the deployment of Alicem in the face of mounting disapproval, even from within his own administration, might be Macron's tribute to and celebration of 70 years of the People's Republic of China. I was wrong of course.

Safeguarding the rights and interests of citizens by making them slaves to AI

The PRC is in an entirely different league to France when it comes to Big Brother and the surveillance society, as has been further confirmed by the news that with effect from December 1 this year, any Chinese consumer wishing to subscribe to new mobile and data services will be compulsorily required to have their features scanned by the telecoms companies that provide their services. The biometric data so obtained will be be uploaded to a China-wide all-encompassing facial recognition system. The Chinese government is determined to build the capability to process each and every one of China's 855 million mobile subscribers.

The rationale behind this immense intrusion into the private life of individual citizens on the part of China's powerful Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) is to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of citizens in cyberspace." The Ministry also says that the new system will "control phone and Internet fraud." Central to this is prohibiting for subscribers from passing-on their mobile phone numbers to others.

The Chinese authorities are very heavily into the social profiling and social control of their citizens and the new requirement to submit to facial profiling is the latest extension to the "real-name registration system for mobile phone" that has been in place in the PRC since 2013. For the past six years Chinese citizens have been required to have their national ID cards checked and recorded at phone shops if they want to get a new number.

It's all part an parcel of the determination of the PRC, under the leadership of president Xi Jinping, to exercise total control over access to information and that means putting a hammerlock on the Internet. This is what the Chinese authorities euphemistically refer to as "cyber sovereignty" which is shorthand for massive censorship, the blocking of sites that do not accord with the Politburo's perception of what is acceptable for the Chinese population to be able to see and read and what they may say, write, text or message.

The imposition of the new strictures coincide with the news that Chinese scientists at Fudan University have developed a 500-megapixel camera that, they claim, can, within a few seconds, identify a single person in a stadium of tens of thousands of people.

The camera's resolution provides five times the detail of the most perfect human eye and the People's Daily newspaper is eulogising the technology as being "invaluable for the military,  national defence and public security operations." Of course it might identify the wrong guy, facial recognition systems do have an abysmal record for accuracy, but whoever Big Brother's eye lights upon the subject will still be frogmarched away to who knows what fate. Still it's science, and science is always neutral, isn't it?

Elsewhere in China, "gait recognition" is being introduced. The way people walk is recorded, analysed and stored and the Chinese police say AI programs are then used to identify individuals from up to 500 metres away. It is notoriously difficult for a person to disguise their natural way of walking and so if you peregrinate about like an old cowhand from the Rio Grande when passing through Beijing or if the thought police conclude that your trousers are a bit tight for an evening passeggiata down Shanghai's Bund, arrest, questioning and a jail sentence could quickly follow.

China long-ago stated its intention to be the world leader in AI and already has surveillance networks in place that feeds data directly into China's infamous "social credit" system which ranks Chinese citizens according to their behaviour. Do anything the system classifies as bad or anti-social and a tumble down the points ladder results in people being restricted in terms of where they can live, the jobs they can get and when and to where they can travel if they fail to toe the party line.

As Pops sang, "And I think to myself, what a wonderful world..."

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