Look around yourself for a second. I bet you can at least see one CCTV camera in your vicinity. Whether we’re in public or at schools, we’re always under watchful eyes. To be honest, cameras make us feel safe. We trust this technology to keep an eye out for our valuables and surroundings.
For us mostly in the States, CCTV surveillance is an integral part of maintaining law and order. In fact, according to statistics, the New York Police Department reported a 30% drop in crime in neighborhoods like the Bronx after CCTV installations.
So there’s no question that surveillance cameras can significantly reduce crime rates. After all, you’re likely to not commit everyday crimes like jaywalking or littering. But the question is, when does surveillance get out of hand and become something straight out of an episode of the Black Mirror.
Well in China, this is all becoming an everyday reality. If you don’t know, China has recently become the largest video surveillance country in the world. The country is using 350 million cameras currently and is planning on using around 600 million cameras with facial recognition and AI technology over the next two years.
The idea behind all this unnecessary surveillance is simple, control the masses. As reported by Aljazeera, recently China has introduced high tech facial recognition cameras with built-in infrared temperature sensors in subways to monitor its citizen’s travel history. This network of cameras is also being used to detect people carrying symptoms of Coronavirus.
Just to give you a perspective of how much surveillance China is using, their network of cameras managed to help authorities apprehend an individual infected with Coronavirus who left his home without completing 2 weeks of self-quarantine. China is also using artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology to publicly shame Chinese citizens for minor offenses.
For instance, if you jaywalk, CCTV cameras with facial recognition technology can take a photo of you, match with your government ID and post it on giant screens on the city streets to embarrass you for breaking the law. Although it’s easy to see the positive side of this technology, you can’t overlook psychological and behavioral manipulation linked to constantly being monitored.
China-owned tech companies are now at the cutting edge of developing insanely accurate video analysis technology. Industry leaders in the domain like Sensetime, has developed a real-time tracking system for smart and safe city, which is so advanced that it can detect a person’s clothing, sex, age and even identify more than 3000 different car models and brands. Literally speaking, there is no such thing as anonymity in China’s public spaces.
The same system is so smart, it can be used to track an individual based on a certain timeline. For instance, if the authorities want to look for a black car that violated a traffic law at an intersection at 11:00 pm, the system can perform video analysis and accurately identify a single person from a crowd of hundreds.
What’s even scarier is the fact that China’s AI-based surveillance technology can foresee future disruptions in public spaces by analyzing past behaviors and patterns. Confused? Well, think of it as a real-time heat map. The system can identify suspicious hotspots with large crowd gatherings. It can also identify those people who spent the most time at a certain location. So in eventuality, the system can predict beforehand if any riot or protests were to happen.
Another tech company that has been heavily funded by the Chinese government to establish a massive state-owned surveillance network is Megvii. This company alone recently recieved half a billion dollars in fundings. So why is China spending so much money on this company? Well to monitor everything in every part of the country.
The premier piece of technology that Megvii is developing and using is called “Skynet”. Sounds familiar right? You might have heard it in the terminator movie from back in the day. Skynet allows Megvii to monitor virtually anything at every second in every part of the country. Their system performs real-time facial recognition scans of tens of thousands of people in public spaces without consent and matches the results in criminal databases to find fugitives.
Imagine this, you’re walking through a crowded subway with hundreds of people around and someone constantly keeps following you everywhere you go. That’s what living under Skynet is like. But this system of constant tracking and surveillance is nothing compared to what China is working on introducing next.
The Chinese government has already started testing a new “social credit score” system, which would rank its citizens based on their online behavior. Sounds creepy? well, it is. Based on the system, people can be either rewarded or punished according to their social scores.
Rember I mentioned the show Black Mirror earlier on in this article? Well, the social credit score system is exactly like it. Although the exact matrix behind the system is kept a secret, a person’s social score can fluctuate depending on their behavior. So if you drive recklessly or smoke in non-smoking zones, your social score can drop.
But what can a drop in social credit score do to a person’s daily life? Well, believe or not, a bad credit score can ban you from booking train and flight tickets. You can also get banned from applying for good schools and even jobs. Worst of all, a bad credit score can get you publically labeled as a bad citizen. Now if you’ve ever watched Black Mirror, this system can potentially outcast a person from accessing civil liberties.
So Who Else is Following China’s Footsteps?
Earlier this year, Dubai Airport has slowly started introducing facial recognition virtual aquariums checkpoints. Even western countries like the UK are now doubling down on AI-powered CCTV cameras to monitor every nook and corner of public spaces. Take for example London. Based on rough estimation, more than 600,000 CCTV cameras cover London’s urban landscape. This means there’s 1 CCTV camera for every 14 people.
According to Tony Porter who is UK’s surveillance camera commissioner, the ability of the UK’s government to monitor everything at all times will lead to unforeseen invasions of user privacy. I for one would feel paranoid by the idea of someone constantly watching my every move.
But the UK isn’t the only country investing in mass video surveillance technology. The United States, for example, is also utilizing new surveillance technology in multiple government sectors. Take for example the law enforcement agencies and big data policing. Multiple law enforcement agencies all over America use body cameras as standard policing procedures.
All of the footage collected through body cameras is no doubt valuable data and can be useful in predicting future practices that can deescalate a situation with minimum damage. However, one of the open questions that remain is, who owns this data. After all, body cameras are provided by independent tech companies that aren’t subject to strict data collection regulations. So if a manufacturer of police bodycam is storing active police footage, it can potentially sell this data to other organizations for profits.
So Where Are We Heading?
Well, one thing is for sure, the US is not far from implementing its own CCTV mass surveillance infrastructure. I say this because at the moment there are no regulatory legislation that can prevent the US from following the same course as China. The general public and sadly lawmakers are least bothered about the potential risk of invasion of privacy.
This sort of carelessness is evident in our young generation growing up in the US. In fact, young teens are pretty used to being surveilled all the time by apps like Snapchat and Facebook. Essentially, I wouldn’t be wrong to say that the US is just at the cusp of transitioning to the dark side of facial recognition and mass surveillance.
If you ask what I think about the ramifications of constant surveillance and behavioral manipulation of Chinese and western citizens, I would say that the future scares me. I believe that when the authoritative regimes have the capability to accurately identify people and their associations, it can drastically change the relationship between governments and their citizens.