China uses AI software to improve its surveillance capabilities

A Dozens of Chinese companies have developed software that employs artificial intelligence to classify data collected on residents, in response to heavy demand from authorities looking to update their surveillance tools according to a Reuters investigation of official papers.

According to Reuters’ review of more than 50 publicly available documents, dozens of Chinese businesses have purchased “one person, one file” software in the last four years. The technology improves on previous software that just collects data and then leaves it up to individuals to organise it.

“The system has the ability to learn independently and can optimize the accuracy of file creation as the amount of data increases. (Faces that are) partially blocked, masked, or wearing glasses, and low-resolution portraits can also be archived relatively accurately,” according to a tender published in July by the public security department of Henan, China’s third-largest province by population.

Requests for comment on the technology and its applications were not returned by Henan’s public security department.

Beijing’s present strategy to spying has been improved by the new software. Despite the fact that China’s existing systems can collect data on individuals, it is up to law enforcement and other users to organise it.

According to Jeffrey Ding, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, another limitation of current surveillance software is its inability to link an individual’s personal details to a real-time location except at security checkpoints like those in airports.

One person, one file “is a way of sorting information that makes it easier to track individuals,” said Mareike Ohlberg, a Berlin-based senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

China’s Department of Public Security, which oversees regional police authorities, did not respond to a request for comment about one person, one file and its surveillance uses. Besides the police units, 10 bids were opened by Chinese Communist Party bodies responsible for political and legal affairs. China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission declined to comment.

The tenders examined by Reuters represent a fraction of such efforts by Chinese police units and Party bodies to upgrade surveillance networks by tapping into the power of big data and AI, according to three industry experts interviewed for this story.

According to government documents, some of the software’s users, such as schools, wanted to monitor unfamiliar faces outside their compounds.

The majority, such as police units in southwestern Sichuan province’s Ngawa prefecture, mainly populated by Tibetans, ordered it for more explicit security purposes. The Ngawa tender describes the software as being for “maintaining political security, social stability and peace among the people.”

Ngawa’s department of public security did not respond to requests for comment.

Beijing says its monitoring is crucial to combating crime and has been key to its efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19. Human rights activists such as Human Rights Watch say that the country is building a surveillance state that infringes on privacy and unfairly targets certain groups, such the Uyghur Muslim minority.

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