China is making Minority Report a reality

When I recently purchased a new Dell laptop with “Cortana” installed, the setup process was more than a bit disturbing. Before I could get anything done, Cortana had to talk to me for a while to learn what my voice sounded like. Then, perhaps even more off-putting to my Old Man Brain, I had to hover my finger over the power button repeatedly so she could learn to recognize my fingerprint. When it was all done I was able to turn on the machine by pressing the button, then holding my index finger over it again, unlocking the screen.

All of that seems a bit invasive for me, but I’m feeling less insecure about it after seeing what’s going on in China. In an initial test of a system they call “Sharp Eyes,” residents of one city are unlocking their front doors just by looking into a camera mounted at the entry. Facial recognition determines if the person belongs there and lets them in if the face matches up. But that’s not all. The system is tied into all of the cameras in the city, at banks, stores, restaurants and traffic intersections. Authorities are trying to match the identity of every face so they can track where each person goes each day. They claim that it helps them recognize strangers who don’t belong there and can not only be used to solve crimes, but even prevent them. (Washington Post)

[F]or the police, the cameras that replaced the residents’ old entry cards serve quite a different purpose.

Now they can see who’s coming and going, and by combining artificial intelligence with a huge national bank of photos, the system in this pilot project should enable police to identify what one police report, shared with The Washington Post, called the “bad guys” who once might have slipped by.

Facial recognition is the new hot tech topic in China. Banks, airports, hotels and even public toilets are all trying to verify people’s identities by analyzing their faces. But the police and security state have been the most enthusiastic about embracing this new technology.

Particularly when you consider the number of people in China, this is a staggering undertaking. Storing digital images of everyone’s faces and having a computer system capable of recognizing and tracking them constantly sounds like something even Google would back away from. But they’re clearly intent on having absolute control of their society and quickly identifying people who are “causing problems” and isolating them from the herd quickly. They’re claiming that the pilot program allows them to, “spot suspicious behaviors and even predict crime.”

If this sort of program showed up in the United States, privacy activists would be setting their hair on fire. But that’s the point of bringing this story up for discussion. Is China going to abuse this power to track people and most likely detain them or otherwise infringe on their rights? Of course they are. They’re not even trying to hide it. That’s just how things are in China, where they have capitalism, but no real freedom.

Lots of this technology is actually quite exciting and, when put in the proper hands, could accomplish quite a bit. But it only works if it’s being used by a benevolent government which is held in check by its citizens. I’d love to see more security cameras in use in the United States and have that information competently managed so law enforcement could find criminals more quickly and safely. To make people comfortable with it, however, we’d need some system of government oversight at whichever level makes the most sense so citizens are aware of what data is being collected and what steps law enforcement would have to follow to use it.

But can we use such a system to predict crime and stop the perpetrators before they start? I’m afraid not. That has to stay in the realm of Minority Report fiction. Or China, apparently.