China uses facial recognition to monitor ethnic minorities

The geo-fencing system alerts authorities when targets stray beyond a "safe area" (Frédéric Bisson/Flickr)

In China’s northwestern autonomous territory Xinjiang, a predominantly Muslim region, facial recognition is being added to the surveillance systems, which critics claim is under abusive control.

The geo-fencing tools alert authorities when targets go past a designated 300-meter “safe zone”, according to an anonymous source.

The so-called “alert project” is managed by a state-controlled defence contractor. The tech matches faces from surveillance camera footage to a watchlist of crime and terror suspects.

The system collects the biometric data of millions of citizens between the ages of 12–65, which is then linked to China’s household ID cards.

Beijing insists the strict security measures are necessary to tackle incidents of violence and instability, which it links to Islamic extremists. But activists and NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, have condemned the measures as a “violation of international human rights norms.”

China has also been criticised for limiting the religious freedoms of Xinjiang’s 10 million ethnic Uyghurs, most of whom are Muslims, and for restricting their ability to travel.

With approximately 170 million CCTV cameras across the country, China has the world’s largest surveillance system. They plan to install 400 million more over the next three years, as well as add facial recognition to assist AI firms in tracking suspects and possibly predicting crimes.

“High technology can guarantee security without interrupting people’s normal activities,” says Yang Shu, a terrorism expert at Lanzhou University.

However, the indiscriminate targeting of Uyghurs has fuelled “incredible anger” and been done outside the boundaries of international or Chinese law.

“People should really pay attention to this because they could easily use the same tools of surveillance elsewhere in China, or for export. A lot of these companies will naturally want to grow their businesses and sell this technology to other authoritarian countries, or even democracies, that are looking for the same tools of control.”

Others have commented that China seems to be becoming more and more like a dystopian Black Mirror episode, with their increased surveillance and social credit systems.

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Eman Cheema

Eman studies Ethics, Society, and Law at the University of Toronto, and also minors in Philosophy and Gender Studies. When she's not teaching or lawyering every other bro on here, she's busy eating tacos.

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