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China’s Facial Recognition System Comes Straight Out of a Dystopian Novel

BY: Amelia Kwan

If you’ve ever read George Orwell’s 1984 or seen The Terminator and left feeling disturbed by the oppressive realities they depict, then consider that our reality might not be as far off from them as you’d think. Today, this is the case for China with its facial recognition system that controls its citizens by tracking their every movement.

As of 2020, China has millions of cameras installed across most of its cities, to reach 600 million by 2021. Even with a mask, sunglasses, or makeup on, the technology can identify citizens and track every movement in real-time. It also labels their sex, age, and the colour of their clothing, as well as the colour, model, and license plate of any vehicle. 

But it isn’t just tracking a citizen’s clothes or what they drive that the Chinese government is interested in. The purpose of their recognition system is to publicly shame and punish those who break the law. For example, intersections now have booths that will display the face of anyone who jaywalks and then sends them a fine in the form of a text. This is a form of behavioural engineering that helps control how people act by instilling fear in them.

The technology is also used to track criminals, or even arrest people before they even commit the crime. The system can identify any wanted criminals and notify the police of their whereabouts. But perhaps the scariest part is the element of control over those who have not actually committed a crime.

Citizens are ranked on a social credit system that judges their behaviour and trustworthiness, which can be determined by their carefully tracked actions on surveillance. Those who exhibit “suspicious” behaviour or with a credit ranking below a certain threshold may be pre-emptively arrested or banned from taking the train or booking flights.

Ironically, China dubbed its surveillance system “Skynet” (the artificial intelligence antagonist from the Terminator Franchise) with the goal of creating an omniscient network that knows everything going on anywhere, at any time. 

From using faces to make purchases, as building door keys, or even to limit toilet paper per person, China’s extensive surveillance and their control over the population shows a frightening trajectory for the future. With a push for tech startups to develop more and more advanced A.I. technology and facial recognition software, these systems could very well make their way into the West.

All of this brings us back to a question: Who does our data belong to? Should the companies who produce surveillance technology for the government and the police have access to it? What restrictions should the government have in terms of access to personal data? How do you balance anonymity with public security?

Regardless of how we decide to handle the debate surrounding personal data, it seems that China is now one step closer to becoming a completely authoritarian society if it isn’t already. The government has complete control of its population with Orwellian-level surveillance, not to mention its notoriety for corruption and making those who oppose the Communist government simply “disappear”.

It’s just like Benjamin Franklin once said:  “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”


*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.


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