Who’s that watching your every move? Don’t worry, it’s only everyone…
Azim Khan Ronnie/Zuma Press/PA Images   

Last week , I had the honour of being a guest on the UnHerd Weekly Podcast.

My ‘under-reported story of the week’ was from the world’s most under-reported country – China. It concerned the arrest of a 31-year old man at a pop concert in the city of Nanchang. The remarkable thing was that the police had managed to spot him in a crowd of 60,000 people. How did they manage that?

Fortunately, the story wasn’t entirely unreported: here’s Amy B Wang for the Washington Post:

“The man, identified only by his surname Ao, was reportedly wanted for ‘economic crimes,’ according to Kan Kan News. Details about Ao had been in a national database, and when he had arrived at the stadium, cameras at the entrances with facial-recognition technology had identified him — and flagged authorities, the news site reported.

‘He was completely shocked when we took him away,’ police officer Li Jin told Xinhua news agency. ‘He couldn’t fathom that police could so quickly capture him in a crowd of 60,000.’”

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While the ability of an automated system to pick out one face from so many (and then alert the authorities) is impressive, not to say scary, there were special circumstances – i.e. the layout of a stadium channels people through a restricted number of access points, where cameras can be strategically positioned.

Could facial recognition work nearly so well in a less regimented and much bigger space? The Chinese authorities are determined that it should:

“As The Washington Post‘s Simon Denyer reported, law enforcement and security officials in China hope to use such technology to track suspects and even predict crimes. Ultimately, officials there want to create a comprehensive, nationwide surveillance system known as ‘Xue Liang,’ or ‘Sharp Eyes’ to monitor the movements of its citizens…”

In a previous UnPacked, I wrote that no country is a stronger position to develop a comprehensive facial recognition system. China has the vast centralised bureaucracies, the disregard for civil liberties and the major investments in artificial intelligence required to make it happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Xue Liang-type systems become a major export opportunity for China’s tech sector.

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Of course, ‘Sharp Eyes’ technology can only be as good as its actual eyes. Cameras capable of feeding image data for processing by recognition algorithms are getting cheaper and smaller – but they’re not yet cheap or small enough to be ubiquitous.

Give it time, though. For instance, consider the following story from Samuel K Moore for IEEE Spectrum:

“Solar cells convert light to electricity. Image sensors also convert light to electricity. If you could do them both at the same time in the same chip, you’d have the makings of a self-powered camera. Engineers at University of Michigan have recently come up with just that, an image sensor that does both things well enough to capture 15 images per second powered only by the daylight falling on it.

“With such an energy harvesting imager integrated with and powering a tiny processor and wireless transceiver you could ‘put a small camera, almost invisible, anywhere,’ says Euisik Yoon, the professor of electrical engineering and computer science at University of Michigan who led its development.”

Though only at the proof of concept stage, the direction of travel is clear – the integration of self-powered, always-on image sensing throughout every public space (and quite a few private ones too).

The internet, like a week-old kitten, is beginning to open its eyes. ln these initial stages, what it sees of the world is blurry and incomplete – but don’t be fooled, it won’t be long before little is missed.

Will this mean a big brother style society in which the state sees everything we do?

Not quite. Once the technology – its sensors and algorithms – becomes cheap, it’s hard to see the state, or any other major player, retaining exclusive control. As well as being all-pervasive, the technology will be also be open-source. Everyone will be able to watch everyone else – and, as never before, our control over private space will defined by our ability to stop others from looking into it.

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If this stuff was getting the coverage it deserves, we’d be debating implications non-stop. The practice of law enforcement – indeed the entire way in which we interact with the world and with one another is set to be transformed. Concerns over the CCTV systems we have now will seem quaint by comparison.

We don’t even have a name for new technology (automatic facial recognition is only one aspect of it). I’m not sure ‘Xue Liang’ will catch-on beyond China – so let me propose an alternative and more generic label. Pervasive Open Source Surveillance Electronics – or POSSE for short.

Any association with the law enforcement practices of the Wild West is purely coincidental.