Surveillance cameras. Photo: Getty Images
Surveillance cameras. Photo: Getty Images

As the saying goes, you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide, but hiding has gotten a lot more difficult as China has been blanketed by a vast surveillance system called “Sky Net.”

State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) revealed in September that around 170 million closed-circuit television cameras had been installed around the country. An estimated 400 million new ones will be installed over the next three years, bringing the total number to 570 million to monitor the 1.3 billion Chinese, meaning a ratio of 2.28 people per camera.

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China has tapped its expertise in artificial intelligence, big data and image screening and processing, utilizing its supercomputers that are among the world’s fastest, to make its streets and alleys safer and hunt down fugitives – with the obvious trade-off being privacy of personal data and individual liberty on the part of the citizenry.

The surveillance cameras are ubiquitous in cities, major industrial zones and at key infrastructure sites. They see everyone, record everyone, and remember everyone’s face, gender, age, clothing and even walking posture, thanks to a real-time pedestrian detection and identification system.

A person’s facial image is the key to a whole plethora of other data such as his identification number, his family members, people he meets often, and where he has been in the past week, said a manufacturer of the cameras used for Sky Net.

An alarm will be triggered if anyone looks like a criminal at large whose information is installed in the colossal database, or digital catalogue. He will then be closely monitored by different cameras in a seamless way wherever he goes, before being grabbed by police.

The system can also track vehicles in a similar way.

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A British Broadcasting Corporation reporter was awed by the power of Sky Net when he tried to fly the coop after just leaving a mugshot of his face as the only clue in a mock manhunt in the southwestern city of Guiyang, Guizhou province.

The British reporter only managed seven minutes of flight before he was hemmed in by police, as his image was soon recognized by no fewer than three cameras while he was running along a footbridge.

There was not a single minute that he was out of the sight of the local police.