China is making progress on a surveillance system that will connect security cameras nationwide via a cloud to a database of every person’s facial ID profile and a file of their personal details, according to an article in the South China Morning Post. The article has led to a discussion as to whether the system already exists and what its potential dangers might be. While we don’t know if the camera system is operational, it could be argued that one of the key concerns is already happening–the use of the facial ID database by commercial entities. For example, Alipay.
The SCMP piece updates the story on the Chinese government’s plan to implement a national system that could use surveillance cameras to identify any one of China’s 1.3 billion people, within 3 seconds and with at least 88% accuracy. The project has been underway since 2015 and various different technology companies have been involved and it is facing some technical difficulties.
According to the SCMP investigation, a commercial application using information sourced from the database is not allowed at present (although a change of policy could make this possible). However, we know from existing uses of facial recognition in China that commercial entities are already accessing this database.
Alipay’s KFC facial recognition system does not require any sort of registration at the terminal. It already links to users’ ID card photos, sources at Ant Financial told TechNode. This is also why foreigners cannot use the system. Commercial mobile payment systems can currently interface with the photo database for the likes of buying a chicken burger. The source claimed that KFC does not keep any of the data and that third parties cannot intercept it.
The article notes other concerns such as the fact that the facial data for the whole Chinese population would come to around 13 terabytes, with the whole database of profiles amounts to around 90 terabytes. As the article points out, this is not actually that big. Indeed, just this week Western Digital released a 14 terabyte hard drive which would allow someone to transfer the facial ID information of the world’s most populous nation onto a single hard drive.