A Chinese police officer wears a pair of facial-recognition smart glasses at Zhengzhou East Railway Station in Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province. Photo: AFP

China caught some bad press recently when US media reported that railway police in Henan Province had used “sunglasses” equipped with facial recognition tech at train stations during the New Year’s rush to nab suspected criminals.

The Wall Street Journal, among others, noted that the glasses in the pilot project can identify individuals from a database of 10,000 faces in 100 milliseconds. The photos of a Chinese policewoman wearing “smart” shades was termed another Orwellian move by a government that has already installed 170 million CCTV cameras to monitor its citizens.

The problem with such stories is that Americans have been living in this brave new world of facial recognition in law enforcement for years. They just don’t know it, thanks to the “blind journalism” of an increasingly unfocused US press.

The FBI has a ‘Next Generation Identification’ [NGI] system that became fully operational in 2014. It scoops up millions of facial photos from state driver’s licenses, post-arrest police mugshots, video feeds from security cameras and even photos from family and friends that the government grabs online. The FBI system, which had 51 million photos in 2015 and is growing, also stores photos from background checks on private sector and government job applicants.

Police everywhere, not just FBI agents, can tap into the system, which also stores fingerprints. NGI was designed by Lockheed Martin under a US$1 billion government contract.

“We see this happening in China, we see this happening in the United States,” Adam Schwartz, the senior staff attorney for the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation [EFF], told Asia Times. “The big picture is that governments around the world are rapidly adopting new technologies to expand their ability to surveil their populations in ways that invade privacy, discourage freedom of speech, disproportionately affect minority groups and which are error prone and violate due process.”

Schwartz notes that official use of aerial drones can add millions of facial photos to these databases. Many US police officers also run checks on motorists during routine traffic stops by capturing their facial images and sending them over cell phones to a database.

US has 30 million police cameras 

China may have 170 million CCTV cameras trained on its 1.3 billion citizens. But there were an estimated 30 million police surveillance cameras installed at US street corners and parks three years ago. Schwartz believes the number of such devices in urban hubs such as New York and small suburban towns has swelled since. Given that the US currently has a population of 326 million, the per capita proportion of surveillance cameras to citizens in the two nations isn’t that different. 

The 30 million figure, according to Schwartz, doesn’t include countless other security cameras operated by private companies, the military and US government agencies. “The question is whether they’ll all be wired together,” he said.

Business Insider, in its unabashed coverage of China’s sunglass-wearing police, noted that Beijing is “currently building a system that will recognize any of its 1.3 billion citizens in three seconds.” But as the record shows, the US is not far behind China in creating a national facial recognition bank.

“We are entering this frightening new world where police can photograph people in real time, run it through facial recognition, get access to sensitive data about them and decide what to do”

Public apathy is playing a part. The US, which has been preoccupied with domestic security since 9/11, has turned a blind eye to the civil liberties issue. 

A rising number of terror attacks on US soil and, most recently, an unprecedented outbreak of mass shootings at schools and public places, is further muting popular opposition to the use of facial recognition and other invasive technologies by law enforcement. Public acceptance of police cameras is also growing due to their usefulness in identifying violent criminals.

A related point is that facial recognition took off as a technology in the US not long after the 2001 terror attack on the World Trade Center. Software firms quickly pointed out back then how rudimentary facial recognition technology could be used to scan crowds at sites like New York’s Grand Central Station to identify terrorists. Such security software was later sold by US and European companies to China.

West’s double standard

The Chinese government has never pretended to be a Jeffersonian democracy. But amid such slippage in “American values,” the irony is that the US, even during a Trump presidency, still finds time to point a moralistic finger at Beijing. Perhaps it’s time for Americans to do a bit of internal house cleaning and reach a consensus on what values they hold dear – without wandering into someone else’s back yard.

A larger issue is how technology has emerged as a double-edged sword that endangers hallowed Western institutions. Alleged Russian meddling in the US election, for example, is exposing the power of social media companies like Facebook to undermine the very democratic societies that nurtured them.

Artificial intelligence [AI] is another innovation that cuts both ways. But even here, Western media is often guilty of geopolitical bias.

The recent passing of celebrated cosmologist Stephen Hawking is a case in point. The BBC couldn’t resist a bit of China-bashing in a story on how the late physicist was loved in China. Noting Hawking’s warning that “we should do all we can to ensure that [AI’s] future development benefits us and our environment,” the British broadcaster used the occasion to take a jab at China. 

Big Brother is watching you. John Hurt in the 1984 film version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“China is now one of the world’s leaders in investing, developing and using AI technology, such as using facial recognition to catch criminals – and to keep a close eye on the population,” the BBC said in a comment that drew fire from China’s Global Times newspaper for twisting Hawking’s words out of context.

“Such a prejudice resulted from [the West’s] double standard when it comes to China,” The Global Times wrote. “It’s not that AI or facial recognition is evil, but when they are connected to China’s system, the West cannot possibly deem them trustworthy, despite their advantages.” 

The sorry truth is that many Americans, unnerved by terror attacks and school shootings, are already sold on using facial recognition and related tech to feel safer. Civil liberties notwithstanding, it’s no stretch to say that we’ll soon see cops with smart sunglasses on Main Street USA.

“We are entering this frightening new world where police can photograph people in real time, run it through facial recognition, get access to sensitive data about them and decide what to do,” Schwartz said.

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