May 10, 2021

Cameras, sensors, controls … A walk through the new Orwellian China | Trends

Cameras, sensors, controls ... A walk through the new Orwellian China | Trends

It is exceeding the line. Please, back off. " A metallic voice warns those who are tempted to cross the street in red. The sound comes from one of the new traffic lights that have been installed in the Bund, one of the most touristic places in Shanghai, and aims at an impossible mission: to ensure that Chinese citizens respect traffic regulations.

Some look to the left and to the right, they see that cars do not come, and they venture anyway. They have not realized that the traffic lights, in addition to having motion sensors installed, have discrete black cameras that record all the movements. They are equipped with facial recognition systems that identify the offender. As if that were not enough, they then project their photography on a screen.

"At the moment, the system is in the testing phase," acknowledges an engineer who is calibrating the cameras. An older lady, armed with a powerful whistle and dressed in a reflective vest that identifies her as traffic assistant, adds that, soon, the system will not only serve to embarrass those who skip the traffic light to the bullfighter. "The fine will be sent home," he says while warning people not to go too far.

The offenders will not be able to escape because China has a complete facial base of its citizens. And of those who visit the country. Not in vain, this year has begun the mandatory collection of fingerprints and face of all who enter the second world power. It is a process that takes place in some machines located in ports and airports before accessing immigration control, in which an agent -or an automatic system- verifies that the stored biometric data matches those of the identity document carrier. Only then opens the mechanical door that gives access to the People's Republic.

From here, in theory, the government can find anyone using the 200 million cameras installed all over the country. The traffic, in addition, are equipped with registration recognition systems that allow knowing the location of any vehicle. It is, the Chinese leaders say, the best formula to build an orderly and secure society. In the eyes of many Westerners, it looks more like the one George Orwell described in 1984. Those with more popular cultural references will compare it with a gigantic Big Brother.

For those of us who live in China, the applications are increasingly varied, and we must recognize that they have an interesting practical use. Shanghai Hongqiao Airport, for example, has been a pioneer in the introduction of a fully automatic system check-in. Passengers get their boarding pass in a machine that verifies their identity with a facial recognition camera, another does the same to allow the automatic check-in of the luggage, and one last step in the security control. "It's faster and more convenient," the young woman assured me, but she kindly warns me that the system only works for Chinese citizens at the moment and that I have to change my line.

Shanghai Metro Control Center.

Those who take the metro to go downtown of the city have to first go through the security controls in which the cameras of HIKvision -the government's main contractor for video surveillance systems- identify the passengers. In the event that someone is in search and capture, an alarm sounds at the control center and a policeman in the field receives the photo of the suspect on his PDA to proceed with his arrest. In the interior of taxis, on the other hand, it is increasingly common to find several cameras, as a security system for both the driver and the passenger.

Already between the skyscrapers of the economic capital of China, and not far from the traffic light in which a voice warns me that I must take a step back, my face serves to access a fundamental product: the toilet paper that usually shine for its absence in the Chinese public baths. The authorities blame that there are never users who steal it, especially older people who take it home. But the truth is that, with that excuse, and never replenished. However, now that President Xi Jinping has launched a revolution to make toilets more welcoming, facial recognition has proven effective in getting everyone access to precious paper.

You just have to stand in front of the dispenser and look at the camera. As soon as the system recognizes us, 50 centimeters of paper come out through the slot. Not one more. In case the grip requires more cellulose, the user is forced to wait a few minutes until the system allows him to receive half a meter again. However, as these machines are still not usual, it is best to always carry some Kleenex on top.

The face is also becoming a means of payment. Just show your face to pay in some of the stores of the Hema chain, owned by Alibaba, and China Merchants Bank ATMs dispense cash using face recognition to verify the identity of the user, who does not even need to carry the card.

A traffic attendant woman next to one of the new facial recognition traffic lights.

And this is just the beginning. In the last World Conference on Artificial Intelligence I could see how, for example, the systems that will be implemented in new buses to avoid accidents: a camera recognizes the gestures of the driver and is able to determine if he is distracted looking at his mobile or if he is sleepy and is a danger. What I do not know is if the vehicles have a tachograph, because if anything characterizes the buses in China it is their wild driving.

In any case, all this that most Chinese citizens see with good eyes, may seem somewhat oppressive. Privacy in China has a different meaning and the pragmatism of the country encourages these artificial intelligence systems to proliferate. The Government itself takes its chest when it speaks of them. But, regardless of whether their use can raise doubts about the repressive role they can play, are they really that perfect? The fact that an elderly woman who may already be retired has to control pedestrians next to a high-tech system proves that anachronism still prevails. In China, it is not all as pointer as it seems. It is one thing to install cameras, and quite another to adapt the infrastructure and train those who use them.

I could see it in the first person a few weeks ago, when a friend, a colleague of this newspaper, came to Shanghai to participate in a course at a university located in the outskirts of the city. We stayed for dinner and, shortly before eleven o'clock at night, he took a taxi to return to campus and I another one back home.

Half an hour later, we starred in the following conversation on WeChat.

Toilet paper dispenser for facial recognition in a public bathroom.

– The taxi driver is charging me twice as much as yesterday. I've already had 300 yuan – I used to pay about 200 for the entire trip – and I still have 15 kilometers left – he informs me.

– He's scamming you. Look at your license number, which should be on the dashboard, or try to take a picture and send it to me.


Then, my friend is silent. He does not respond to my messages or my calls, so I start worrying. Although Shanghai is very safe, taxis are not unusual, and some behave violently.

We waited an hour before calling the police. I tell them what happened and I give them the exact point and the time at which we have taken the taxis. Theoretically, license plate recognition systems can locate any vehicle with that information, especially on such a busy street as Nanjing West.

They do not show much interest until I inform them that we are journalists. Then they worry more about knowing what my friend does in Shanghai. Finally, they assure that by telephone they can not help me, and that they will go to my house.

Two agents dressed in body cameras and radios come to my door a quarter of an hour later to tell me they can not help me. The reason? Police in a neighborhood do not have access to the cameras in the next neighborhood. Can you call your classmates and ask them to look at you? Nor do I have to go in person to the police station closest to where we took the taxi, and then I may have to move to others.

"Oh, and it is not certain that we can identify the vehicle, because many of the cameras do not work," says one of the agents before leaving after having a good eye on the house.

It's after one o'clock in the morning when we set out to tour the police stations in Shanghai. Then the mobile rings. Fortunately, my friend had run out of battery at the worst moment and, with the help of some students, managed to argue with the taxi driver and reduce the amount of the scam. Curiously, he threatened to call the police.

Perhaps this explains why so many pirate taxis still operate in the vicinity of the Bund, the same area in which the new traffic lights hunt down unruly pedestrians. It should be relatively easy to find them and withdraw them, but they are still there, swindling foreigners and locals. The same happens with those who, when night falls, assault all quisqui with offers of drugs and prostitutes. Apparently, the infrared cameras do not see them. Although it could also be that those who control them do not want to see them.


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