Chinese companies are pushing their own specifications for facial recognition (FR), video monitoring, city and vehicle surveillance at the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Beijing’s commitment to influence the rules of next-generation technologies is anything but new. As a first mover in 5G deployment, it has played a prominent role in setting telecommunications standards over the last years. Now the country wants to shape FR standards, as a leading supplier of surveillance technology around the world. The implications for human rights and ethics are profound as most countries have yet to agree on how the technology should be used.
According to a report by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Chinese influence in international standardisation organisations, like ITU, the International Standardization Organization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Committee (IEC), has increased tremendously. Standards define the basic characteristics of a technology that guarantees interoperability. China’s standard-setting ambitions are understandable as the country seeks to advance its economic interest and to gain access for its products to other markets.
China’s aim is to be the world’s leader in artificial intelligence (AI) by 2030 and it’s investing heavily to make it happen. The industry has been fuelled by a combination of strong government backing, large data sets created by the vast population, and minimal concerns about privacy. Chinese facial recognition companies are in a particularly good position, given the government’s efforts to identify and track its 1.4 billion people. China’s social credit system rates each citizen’s trustworthiness and is based on a network of over 200m surveillance cameras and ubiquitous facial recognition technology. The government shares its huge facial images database with Chinese technology companies, giving them an unparalleled advantage over non-Chinese firms.
Western countries are also major users of FR technology and Chinese companies are not the only ones supplying surveillance technologies to governments. Tech firms in Japan, Israel and the US are competing to do the same. But China’s widespread use for surveillance purposes has raised concerns among human rights campaigners, who have denounced the technology being used as a repressive tool against the Muslim-majority Xinjiang region. Also, Chinese companies like Huawei, Dahua, and ZTE supply AI surveillance technology to more than 60 countries, according to a study from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). These include countries like Zimbabwe and Venezuela with poor human rights records and which may otherwise be unable to access the technology.
China wants to pioneer FR standards on how data captured by FR cameras and surveillance devices is analysed and stored. Human rights advocates lament the ethically neutral approach of some provisions, which have been documented by the Financial Times, including the storage of detected facial features, like race and skin colour, in a database, the monitoring of people in public spaces by the police, and the tracking of employee attendance at work. A standard proposed by some Chinese companies also includes an option to add video monitoring capabilities when deploying smart street lights.
In the current regulatory vacuum, a Chinese standard might become the norm in autocratic or semi-autocratic countries that might exploit the technology to reinforce repression. However, there is no guarantee that the large number of Chinese proposals are approved by standard organisations, and the FT reports that specifications pushed by Beijing are often rejected at a very early stage by other governments.
Beyond setting the standards, it is also important to determine the extent to which FR technologies can be deployed. In the US and especially in Europe, regulators are moving to give citizens explicit rights over the use of FR data. The European Commission is discussing regulation to limit FR. Although the collection of biometric data that can be used to identify people is prohibited under General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), no EU data protection authority has yet enforced the legislation against any company violating it.
In the US the Commercial Facial Recognition Privacy Act is the most recently proposed act regarding privacy on FR. If passed into law it would prohibit private entities from collecting and sharing data to identify their customers without consent.
As regulators and lawmakers in the West are closely scrutinising FR applications, we are likely to see increased divergence in legal requirements and standards between China on the one hand, and the US and Europe on the other. However, even for those countries importing FR from China, the actual usage will depend on the regulation put in place. Data privacy laws like GDPR can determine the extent to which technologies prone to abuses like FR can be deployed. FR is becoming part of people’s lives without adequate consensus not only in China but also in Western countries.
France, Germany and the UK are planning an FR roll-out in public spaces in the short term and London’s Metropolitan Police has announced that it will deploy live FR across the capital, despite concerns voiced by regulators and human rights campaigners. While legal standards and regulations are critical, what is lacking, in China as in the West, is a broader discussion about the values of good technology and the ethics that should inform its use.
Laura Petrone is a senior analyst at GlobalData Thematic research. GlobalData’s computer vision thematic report can be found here.
NS Tech and GlobalData are part of the same group.