Welcome to Part 2 of our month-long series on facial recognition technology (FRT). This week I wanted to dive right into easily the most upsetting of the known applications for FRT worldwide, China’s Xue Liang or “Sharp Eyes.” This is an important case study in part because China has embraced FRT at a scale far beyond any other country in the world. In a sense China is the most important testing ground for the tech. It also serves to highlight some of the concerns to civil liberties posed by the technology in its current form.


So what is Sharp Eyes?

Sharp Eyes is the Chinese Government’s new country-wide FRT-based video surveillance network. The name was taken from a Maoist proverb, “The masses have sharp eyes” – doublespeak for “good citizens inform on their neighbors.” According to documents obtained by the Washington Post, government officials hope to have the system “omnipresent, fully networked, always working, and fully controllable” by 2020. So far, so Orwellian.


But what is the purpose of this surveillance, one might ask. Well, it varies. Supposedly there’s a toilet paper dispenser at a public restroom outside Temple of Heaven in Beijing designed to monitor people taking too much TP, and at intersections in Shenzhen there are giant, public display screens listing the faces and partial ID numbers of jaywalkers, to shame them in real time. Some intersections also spray the jaywalkers with cold water, for added shame. These systems aren’t always perfectly accurate; a surveillance camera recently mistook a celebrity’s face on a passing bus for a jaywalker (even worse it misidentified her). Still, the technology website Abacus reports that 14,000 jaywalkers have been accurately identified at a single intersection in just 10 months, about 2 per day.


Human Rights Watch obtained documents from China’s Police Cloud servers detailing these other possible targets for surveillance:


  • Petitioners, an umbrella term for anyone with a complaint about a personal injury or injustice
  • Anyone who “undermines stability”
  • Anyone with “extreme thoughts”


Other documents list members of specific ethnic or religious groups as special targets for surveillance as well, especially Muslims.

So basically as long as you’re an uncomplaining, non-Muslim, Han Chinese/ foreigner who waits for the light, doesn’t make any political waves, and always wipes in moderation, you’re totally in the clear so long as you never think differently than everyone else.

The name was taken from a Maoist proverb, “The masses have sharp eyes” - doublespeak for “good citizens inform on their neighbors.”

The Xinjiang Surveillance Model


As stated above, Sharp Eyes is intended for country-wide surveillance, but it is still in beta many place and so not yet “omnipresent.” So far, the greatest push for surveillance has been centered around western region of Xinjiang. Why? Xinjiang is large, semi-autonomous, mineral-rich, strategically located along important trade and transportation routes, and historically difficult for the Chinese Government to control. The region’s inhabitants are mostly from ethnic minorities – including Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz – and they are mostly Muslim.


The Chinese Government spent roughly USD 9 billion on security in Xinjiang in 2018, on everything from FRT to wifi sniffers (programs which secretly collect data from devices) to drones. USD 46 million of that went toward installing nearly 1,000 facial recognition surveillance cameras outside rural mosques. Other funds went toward police checkpoints, data processing centers, and “reeducation camps.”


The Chinese Government explains its emphasis on surveilling Muslims as being part of the global War on Terror launched by former US President George W. Bush, but political analysis by the Jamestown Foundation has found that phrases like “war on terror,” “anti-terrorism,” and de-extremification” are used as euphemisms for forced ethnic assimilation. Under 2017 legislation, it is illegal for residents of Xinjiang to grow a beard or wear a face veil, both common signs of religious devotion in Islam. It is also illegal to purchase either a knife or gasoline without a facial recognition scan. But the law is merely a convenient tool; the government also detains residents before they break the law using Minority Report-style predictive policing tools which pull information from various sources including surveillance, banking statements, and internet search histories.


According to analysis by the Jamestown Foundation, as many as a million Muslims from ethnic minority groups have been placed in “reeducation centers” around the region, without any recourse to legal proceedings. The number of residents has been estimated from a combination of construction bid descriptions, job postings, and eye-witness accounts. The Chinese Government denies any knowledge of these centers, claiming that “we do not have such an idea in China.” But the concept of reeducation camps isn’t not new practice in modern China. The 1950s saw “reform through labor” programs for political dissidents, and the 2000s had “transformation through education” for Falun Gong members. The current efforts by the Chinese Government in Xinjiang, however, represent more than likely the country’s most intense campaign of coercive social reengineering since the end of the Cultural Revolution.”

In other countries, we are often concerned about the use of big data for deepening existing political bias - for example, for targeting historically disadvantaged groups like African Americans in the U.S. context - but for the Chinese systems, the targeting of people of certain ethnicity is a fundamental function of the system.”

- Maya Wang, Human Rights Watch researcher

And the Contract Goes to…

Chinese state-sponsored tech giants Hikvision and Dahua Technology  together comprise about one third of the global market for security cameras and video recorders. They are worth a combined USD 70 billion. Both are darlings of the investment community. Since 2016, the two companies have received USD 1.2 billion in government security contracts centered on Xinjiang, and in 2017 when most of the region’s security projects launched, they grew by 30 and 40 percent respectively.

Hikvision has particularly strong government ties. The government owns 42% of the company through its parent company, and its chairman was appointed to parliament. In August of this year, the U.S. banned Hikvision from US government contracts amid fears that the surveillance systems in place at U.S. military bases could be compromised. The vast majority of Hikvision’s revenue comes from contracts within China.

A spokesperson for Dahua has admitted some surprise at the recent surge in surveillance in Xinjiang. They claim to be providing only standard technology offerings for government contracts, but standard or not, the Xinjiang crackdown has made the company a fortune. Deutsche Bank credits Dahua’s successful bid for a Xinjiang “Safe Country” security project, worth an estimated USD 686 million over ten years, as a major factor in awarding the company a buy rating.

Frances Eve, a researcher for Chinese Human Rights Defenders in Hong Kong told the Washington Post late last year that the technology companies are complicit in the government’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. “The government treats human rights activists, lawyers, and ethnic Uyghurs and Tibetans as criminals,” she said. “and these people are being caught, jailed, and possibly tortured as a result of this technology.”


There’s a whole lot more to say here, but it falls outside the scope of this blog post. I urge anyone wanting to learn more to clink the hyperlinks imbedded in this post and read the reporting and analysis of experts on the subject.

Next week’s post will discuss the very open debate over whether any of this is really a problem with facial recognition technology per se, or simply an example of its misuse (Facial recognition doesn’t throw minorities in labor camps; people throw minorities in labor camps). The Chinese Government’s use of facial recognition is an important example, however, regardless of which side you eventually come down on in that debate. More than anywhere else, China has made itself the testing ground for the FRT. The lessons learned there will help determine the course of innovation in the tech. If repressive policies fund that innovation, we’ll end up with a technology geared for repression.

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