Chinese Police Add Facial-Recognition Glasses to Surveillance Arsenal
Washington Post, 8 February 2018
By Josh Chin – As hundreds of millions of Chinese begin traveling for the Lunar New Year holiday, police are showing off a new addition to their crowd-surveillance toolbox: mobile facial-recognition units mounted on eyeglasses.
China is already a global leader in deploying cutting-edge surveillance technologies based on artificial intelligence. The mobile devices could expand the reach of that surveillance, allowing authorities to peer into places that fixed cameras aren’t scanning, and to respond more quickly.
The devices, released late last year, were touted in state media this week as a means to help authorities during times such as the annual Lunar New Year migration that begins next week, when Chinese travelers flood train stations and airports.
The eyeglass-mounted camera is equipped with facial-recognition technology capable of “highly effective screening” of crowds for fugitives traveling under false pretenses, the official People’s Daily newspaper reported Monday. Its story included images of a policewoman wearing a sunglasses version of the device at a railway station in Zhengzhou, capital of central China’s Henan province.
The devices have already helped railway police at Zhengzhou’s East Railway Station capture seven people wanted in connection with major criminal cases, and 26 others who were traveling using other people’s identities, the paper said.
China monitors train and air travel, and sometimes people who are facing punishment for infractions will try to get around travel restrictions by using a borrowed identity.
While the technology is probably useful in catching criminals, it could also make it easier for authorities to track political dissidents and profile ethnic minorities, said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.
“The potential to give individual police officers facial-recognition technology in sunglasses could eventually make China’s surveillance state all the more ubiquitous,” he said.
Public-security authorities in Zhengzhou didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.Beijing-based LLVision Technology Co. worked with police departments in Henan, the eastern province of Shandong and the northwestern region of Xinjiang for a year to develop the devices, according to LLVision Chief Executive Wu Fei.
He said the devices are based on wearable video cameras that lack facial-recognition capability which the company sells to businesses and consumers. However, the company also sells a model that companies can use for identification purposes at workplaces or corporate events, Mr. Wu said.“It gives you the ability to check anywhere,” he said.The devices try to address a speed problem that bedevils fixed-camera facial-recognition systems at subway stations, border crossings and other places where authorities seek to identify fugitives. In many cases, by the time authorities rush to where a suspect has been identified, their target has melted back into the crowd.“
By making wearable glasses, with AI [artificial intelligence] on the front end, you get instant and accurate feedback,” Mr. Wu said. “You can decide right away what the next interaction is going to be.
”Unlike many fixed-camera facial-recognition systems that remotely connect cameras to vast facial databases stored in the cloud, the police glasses are wired directly to a hand-held device that contains an offline database—allowing them to work more quickly.
In tests, the company says, the device has been able to identify individuals in a database of 10,000 suspects in as little as 100 milliseconds. That is faster than some fixed-camera systems, though Mr. Wu concedes that the “environmental noise” in real-life situations is likely to decrease accuracy.Some people see parallels to the fictional technology featured in a recent Tom Cruise movie.
To protect individual privacy, the company said it vets clients and isn’t selling the facial-recognition technology to regular consumers until it has a better grasp of the potential social impacts. Helping police track fugitives is “a good-use case,” Mr. Wu said.
A basic, video-only version of the glasses retails for 3,999 yuan ($636). LLVision said it couldn’t provide a price for facial-recognition models, since they are sold as part of a larger custom-designed system that varies in cost.
The company said that it had exported basic versions of the glasses to Africa, the U.S., Europe and Japan and that it wants to expand overseas sales.That could include sales to law-enforcement agencies, which are so far limited to China.“There might be an opportunity there. Who knows?” Mr. Wu said.
Reported by John Chin for the Washington Post