China said to test facial-recognition fence in Muslim-heavy area
(Bloomberg) -- China’s state surveillance apparatus is trying out a new tool in one of its favorite test beds, the restive region of Xinjiang.
The Muslim-dominated villages on China’s western frontier are testing facial-recognition systems that alert authorities when targeted people venture more than 300 meters (1,000 feet) beyond designated “safe areas,” according to a person familiar with the project. The areas comprise individuals’ homes and workplaces, said the person, who requested anonymity to speak to the media without authorization.
“A system like this is obviously well-suited to controlling people,” said Jim Harper, executive vice president of the libertarian-leaning Competitive Enterprise Institute and a founding member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee. “‘Papers, please’ was the symbol of living under tyranny in the past. Now, government officials don’t need to ask.”
The alert project is another example of how Xinjiang -- a region boarding Pakistan and Afghanistan that’s home to about 10 million Muslim ethnic Uighurs -- has become a laboratory for technologies that track large groups simultaneously. Spurred on by President Xi Jinping’s orders to “strike first” against Islamist extremism after deadly attacks involving Uighurs in 2013 and 2014, as well as reports of some fighting in Syria, the region has become one of the world’s most heavily policed places.
Land of Checkpoints
The Alaska-sized Xinjiang is a land of checkpoints, police stations and security cameras. Local governments have been ordering residents to install satellite-tracking systems in their cars. People must submit to facial scans to enter markets, buy fuel or visit places such as the capital Urumqi’s main bus terminal.
Xinjing’s regional publicity department didn’t respond to faxed requests for comment this week. The Ministry of Public Security in Beijing also didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Facial recognition is a big part of China’s two-year-old domestic surveillance upgrade campaign called Xue Liang, a reference to a Chinese idiom about the public’s collective observation power. While other countries are experimenting with the technology -- the Federal Bureau of Investigation is, for instance, developing a database of Americans’ photographs -- China is at the vanguard.
The country is on track to represent 46 percent of the $17.3 billion global video surveillance market by year end, and three-quarters of all deep learning-enabled servers for analyzing the data, according to Jon Cropley, a senior principal analyst at IHS Markit. All told, China earmarked 938 billion yuan ($146 billion) for domestic security in 2015 -- the last time such figures were released -- more than its military budget at the time.
The Xinjiang alert project is being led by China Electronics Technology Group, a state-run defense contractor that has parlayed its experience building radar and space systems into domestic security initiatives, the person said. It’s part of the Beijing-based company’s effort to develop software to collate data on jobs, hobbies, consumption habits, and other behavior of ordinary citizens to predict terrorist acts before they occur.
China Electronics Technology Group didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.