Techno-Politics: Focus on China’s facial recognition technologies

C. Raja Mohan
The eight companies in the list include HikVision and Dahua that manufacture surveillance cameras as well as Yitu, Megvi and SenseTime that work on facial recognition (Source: Reuters/Representational image)

The new round of US sanctions against China unveiled this week have turned a harsh light on surveillance technologies including facial recognition that gained much traction in recent years.

Among the two-dozen entities against whom the US announced measures are some of the leading companies in China’s artificial intelligence industry. The eight companies in the list include HikVision and Dahua that manufacture surveillance cameras as well as Yitu, Megvi and SenseTime that work on facial recognition.

The rest are public security agencies in China. These entities will no longer be able to access US technology products without license. China’s top technology company, Huawei, is already under US sanctions.

EXPLAINED | The push for, and the pushback against, facial recognition technology

Over the last couple of years, technology issues have emerged at the front and centre of the deepening Sino-US trade tensions. We now have an additional dimension to the trade war— human rights and the treatment of China’s Muslim minorities.

In a statement notifying the sanctions, the US Commerce Department said the "entities have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China's campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups."

The Trump administration has been widely criticised for downplaying human rights considerations in America’s external relations. In relation to China, President Donald Trump has chosen to be circumspect rather than critical on the issues relating to minority rights in Xinjiang or the protest movement in Hong Kong. Until now. Bringing human rights into the arguments on technology could mark a decisive moment in the unfolding conflict between the US and China.

Beijing has used facial recognition technologies, which are rapidly improving, to establish a surveillance state well beyond Xinjiang to stamp out any potential dissent across China. A blossoming facial recognition industry at home has also created the basis for China’s export of surveillance systems around the world.

According to a recent report of Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Chinese companies have exported surveillance technologies based on AI to sixty-three countries. Thirty-six of these countries are participants in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

For many countries in the developing world, China’s exports come with soft loans and the promise of better law and order. When Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena visited Beijing in May this year, weeks after the Easter bombings, China reportedly offered to share surveillance technologies to strengthen Colombo's war on terror.

Many developed countries too, have allowed Chinese companies to set up surveillance systems as part of 'smart city' projects, improve border controls and control illegal immigration. But as the deeper implications of the use of facial recognition technologies for privacy and freedom came into view, there has been a vigorous backlash at two levels.

One is the genuine apprehension in North America and Europe that China’s surveillance companies are sucking up data on Western populations and might weaponise it in the future. Other is the question of democratic rights including privacy and freedom within the West as well as in other countries, where the Chinese techniques of AI-based political control are being welcomed.

The counter-moves have not been long in coming. Earlier this week, California approved a law banning the police departments in the state from using facial recognition software on surveillance cameras. Besides pointing to the dangers of heralding a police state, the champions of the new law highlighted the fact that facial recognition technology is prone to significant errors. The European Union too is considering regulations that impose strict limitations on the use of facial recognition technologies.

Like all technologies, facial recognition too can be deployed for either good and bad. It can be used for better law enforcement or promote political repression. It can be deployed to prevent terrorism or curb political protest. The challenge in democracies, at least, is about defining appropriate norms for their use and finding balance between multiple imperatives.

The problem is not limited to the management of the tension between the state and the citizen or collective security and individual rights. For the rise of surveillance state has been matched with the rise of surveillance capitalism.

Many technology companies already use facial recognition for commercial use. Some brands of smartphones and laptops now use facial recognition technology for logging you in. A whole host of other uses are now under testing. China’s expansive use of surveillance technologies and the US challenge to it mark the beginning a wider global debate on the use of facial recognition as a political, security and commercial tool.

C. Raja Mohan is Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express