Big Brother and China’s surveillance state are blurring the lines between privacy and profiling when it comes to facial recognition technology.

In a country where the debate on government policy is often stifled, academics have voiced concerns over the level of high-tech “tracking” in nearly every aspect of life.

Lao Dongyan, a law professor from the prestigious Tsinghua University, posted a detailed account of the decision by Beijing’s sprawling metro system to deploy facial recognition technology to “improve the efficiency of passenger traffic.”

Her critique on the Chinese social media app WeChat was a startling and, at times, sobering description of this “looking glass” society.

Translated into English by Jeffrey Ding, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, on his ChinAI newsletter, Lao revealed:

“[So,] Beijing Subway [metro] will apply facial recognition technology to carry out screening security checks on passengers on the grounds that it will improve the efficiency of passenger traffic. After reading this news, my first reaction was: This is crazy.

“[Already] you need to show your ID card when entering or leaving the university campus, have your ID card checked when you [pick up your] mail, scan your face to check-in at a hotel, and [now it appears it is] not enough to go through a security check to ride the subway [metro]. Now, you need to go one step further and use the so-called new technology to continue to improve the level of security.

“I want to ask, where will it end? Next, is it necessary to fully install face recognition machines on all roads and in all public places, in order to intercept pedestrians, and interrogate and search them at any time, and detain those who are considered to be dangerous to safety?”

Indeed, a valid question. Yet the world’s second-largest economy has a track record of spying on its own people.

A survey conducted by Comparitech, a cybersecurity company, showed that China was ranked the worst offender of 50 nations when it came to “invasive” biometric IDs and surveillance systems.

Facial recognition technology was at the forefront of this security push.

Beijing’s metro system is planning to install high-tech surveillance systems, including facial recognition. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhao

“Beijing is trialing facial recognition technology at security checkpoints on the subway so it can divide travelers into groups, something they’re hoping to expand to include buses, taxis, and other travel services,” the report released earlier this month stated.

“And, at the time of writing, China has also introduced facial recognition checks for anyone getting a new mobile phone number,” it added.

Last year, the nation’s video surveillance equipment market was worth US$10.6 billion, according to IDC, the American research firm. By 2023, that number will jump to $20.1 billion.

Two major Chinese companies, Hikvision and Dahua, have been turned into the ultimate eyeball on the wall after receiving lavish government contracts.

They have also been accused by Washington of human rights abuses during the crackdown by President Xi Jinping’s administration on the Muslim minority Uighurs in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, which is in the northwest of the country.

Along with 27 Chinese businesses including cutting-edge companies in artificial intelligence research, Megvii Technology and SenseTime, they were placed on a blacklist by the US Department of Commerce in October.

“[There has been] widespread and invasive use of facial recognition technology in CCTV cameras. As our previous study, Surveillance States found, facial recognition cameras are now being used to track and monitor the Muslim minority, Uighurs, among other things,” Comparitech reported.

Recognized as a major global player, Hikvision has a market value of $42 billion. But lurking behind the numbers and the company’s rise are its links to China’s security sector, the driving force of domestic revenue.

Two years ago, there were about 176 million surveillance cameras in the country, IHS Markit estimated. By 2020, that figure is projected to grow to at least 450 million.

In Beijing and other major cities, they have sprouted up like urban weeds, despite outbreaks of public anger.

A survey released in December by the Nandu Personal Information Protection Research Center illustrated the fears triggered by facial recognition technology.

Out of more than 6,000 people interviewed, 74% said they wanted to use traditional ID cards to verify their identity.

“Among the respondents, 79% said they fear facial data leaks and 65% said they were worried about deep fakes. About half of the respondents were also concerned about fraud and theft,” the report claimed.

Yet Beijing is not alone in ramping up high-tech surveillance systems.

Earlier this month, Zhejiang Sci-tech University lecturer Guo Bing sued the Hangzhou Safari Park for breach of contract after it replaced its fingerprint-based entry system with a facial recognition model.

“The purpose of the lawsuit is not to get compensation but to fight the abuse of facial recognition,” he told the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper.

Still, the fact the case was initially covered in the state-owned media underlines the sensitivity of the issue even inside the ruling Chinese Communist Party. But how far the CCP will bend is questionable.

For Professor Lao, the stakes could not be higher.

“In a normal society, individuals should have the right to oppose any organization’s arbitrary access to their personal biometric data. The law’s protection of an individual’s privacy and property rights and freedoms gives individuals space for self-government, which cannot be infringed upon by others,” she said.

In this shady surveillance war, the hallowed halls of academia appear to have fired the opening shots against Big Brother.