Facial Recognition In China Is Big Business As Local Governments Boost Surveillance

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Dozens of cameras meet visitors to the Beijing headquarters of SenseTime, China's largest artificial intelligence company. One of them determines whether the door will open for you; another tracks your movements.

The one that marketing assistant Katherine Xue is gazing into, in the company's showroom, broadcasts an image of my face with white lines emanating from my eyes, nose and corners of my mouth. It estimates I am a 37-year-old male (I'm 44) with an attractiveness score of 98.

"Is that a high or low score?" I ask Xue, whose digitized face shows that she is a 23-year-old female with an attractiveness score of 99.

"That's a very high score!" she exclaims.

Later Xue whispers to me that everyone receives high scores. This is one of SenseTime's many products, a marketing application that flatters you so that you'll buy merchandise selected for you based on data gleaned from your face. (The machine determines that a cheap brand of Chinese grain alcohol is something I'd likely buy).

This is just one application of SenseTime's facial recognition technology, which is now being used by a growing number of local governments across China. Another is a camera in the corner of the company's fifth-story showroom, pointed at the street.

SenseTime artificial intelligence researcher Qian Chen shows me real-time video of the traffic below. Onscreen squares surround each moving object, identifying and classifying them: A car's make, model, color and license plate number pop up on the screen, as does information about each person walking through the frame: their sex, color of clothing, whether they're an adult or child. Their identification isn't displayed, but, says Qian, if their data is stored inside SenseTime's system, it could be.

It is for employees at SenseTime. Their biometric data is stored here, and a map of Beijing uses camera data to track where employees have been throughout a typical day.

SenseTime's chief marketing officer, June Jin, says the company sells these applications to Chinese police. "We have been working with 40 public security bureaus," Jin says. "They've been working on this, leveling up the city security level."

Surveillance makes up a third of SenseTime's business, says Jin – their clients are local governments throughout China. SenseTime's clients also include private security firms – it supplies the core technology to seven of China's 10 largest security firms — plus financial services companies, banks, mobile operators and the smartphone industry.

This has helped catapult SenseTime, founded in 2014, to become China's largest unicorn – defined as a startup worth $1 billion or more – with a valuation of more than $3 billion.

At Megvii, China's second largest AI company, vice president Xie Yinnan says China's government – with its massive demand for facial recognition technologies – has helped the company quickly innovate its technology.

"The government is pushing the need for this technology from the top, so companies don't have big obstacles in making it happen," Xie says. "In America, people are too busy discussing how they should use it."

China's State Council, its central government, has laid out goals to build an artificial intelligence industry worth nearly $150 billion within the next two years, much of it to enhance domestic security.

Both Megvii and SenseTime have sold their technology to public security bureaus throughout China as part of China's "Sharp Eyes" program, a plan to integrate existing security cameras throughout China into one nationwide surveillance and data-sharing program.

The technology of both companies is also being used in China's "Smart City" program, a plan that will, among other things, use facial recognition and other personal data to "help cities run more efficiently," according to a government description of the program.

When I question how Chinese police will use Megvii's technology, Xie concedes that much of the technology has serious limitations.

"We just provide the government the technology, and they do their job with it," Xie says. "Cameras in China are set at 2.8 meters [9 feet] above the ground. That means they won't be able to capture human faces. That's a rule. Chinese citizens know that, so they don't think about it too much."

But Chinese citizen Ji Feng thinks about it all the time. He's a poet and activist who police routinely escort out of Beijing on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre or on World Human Rights Day. He says after a fellow activist visited his home recently, the police used facial recognition cameras to identify him, inform his landlord — and then, he says, his landlord threatened to kick him out of his apartment.

"The government's using this technology to catch people who are considered threats to social stability," says Ji. "Are they using it to catch thieves? Yes. But it's mostly used to maintain stability."

Megvii's Xie insists China is using its technology to keep cities safe, stopping street crime and protecting residents from pickpockets and those who plan to harm others. When I ask him what he'd think if foreign governments used his technology to crack down on their citizens, he quotes Google's founders.

"Our founders also think 'don't be evil' is the No. 1 principle," he says. "If a government is using it to control locals, we'd think twice about doing business with them. Our principle is to empower humans, not to control them."

Plus, Xie says, the idea that facial recognition is an all-seeing eye doesn't hold up to the facts: The algorithm capacity of the fastest servers isn't enough to support the data of thousands of cameras capturing hundreds of millions of people at any given time, he says.

But it can give you a score on your attractiveness.

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