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How China Is Using Facial Recognition Technology

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Facial recognition technology has been around for a while, but this year it became a facet of life in China. We take a look in All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")

SHAPIRO: China has built a vast network of cameras all across the country that enable facial recognition technology. To find out just how common it's become and whether it works, NPR's Emily Feng took a walk around her neighborhood in Beijing.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: So right now, Amy Cheng, NPR's producer here in Beijing, and I are walking down just another street in Beijing. We normally wouldn't be out. It's hovering right above freezing. The smog is pretty choking today. But we're on the lookout for facial recognition cameras, and we've just spotted what looks like one near a parking lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

FENG: I think I see it. Do you see that white bulbous thing hanging off the pole?

China has some 200 million cameras by its own estimate, but we're looking for a very specific set of facial recognition cameras that feed into a surveillance dataset on hundreds of people in Beijing discovered this spring.

JOHN WETHINGTON: You can just call me a security researcher at Condition:Black. That's our organization. And my name is John Wethington.

FENG: Wethington was on duty the night his firm found the dataset.

WETHINGTON: And as we started digging deeper into it, we realized people were effectively being watched. We had latitude and longitude for cameras. We had IP addresses. We had identity cards.

FENG: The data came from hundreds, if not thousands, of cameras across Beijing, some of which Amy and I were now tracking down.

WETHINGTON: And they were doing comparisons of facial recognition data that they were picking up off of these cameras with facial recognition data that had been collected by police surveillance.

FENG: In the dataset Wethington found, people were indexed by information, like their criminal history, with facial recognition data, like if they were bearded or wearing a mask, and even what ethnicity they were, Han, the ethnic majority here in China, or Uighur, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority China has detained by the hundreds of thousands in the region of Xinjiang in the name of anti-terrorism.

Xinjiang has seen a rapid buildup in facial recognition technologies in cameras, all part of an effort to monitor millions of ethnic minorities there in the name of national security. Those methods are now becoming mainstream across China, including cities like Beijing.

STEVEN FELDSTEIN: Oh, I think China is absolutely unique.

FENG: Steven Feldstein is an associate professor at Boise State University and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.

FELDSTEIN: I think it's at the cutting edge of not only integrating new forms of AI surveillance capabilities, but tying those into a very repressive police state.

FENG: Feldstein has created an index that measures the degree to which countries use artificial technology surveillance, including facial recognition, and where that technology comes from.

FELDSTEIN: It's really proliferating around the world in all regions. And it also - I mean, it goes to autocracies, hybrid regimes, democracies. So it really is something that is spreading pretty evenly around the world.

FENG: But while the accuracy of facial recognition is quickly rising, it's still dependent on things like weather conditions and lighting. China has also shown itself willing to surveil broad categories of people. In Xinjiang, for example, where an estimated 1 million or more Uighurs and other minorities have been detained at some point, facial recognition has not been used to precisely pinpoint Muslims. It's used as a blunt instrument of intimidation.

Back on the streets of Beijing, I ask Amy, a native Beijinger and NPR's producer, do you ever have a feeling that you're being watched?

AMY CHENG, BYLINE: I think surveillance cameras are those things that you start noticing them, you can't un-notice them.

FENG: So far, the feeling of being surveilled constantly seems to be more of a deterrent than the facial recognition technology itself.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.