China, the country most determined to become a real-life episode of Black Mirror, has officially risen the bar on its dystopian vision for the world.
Police in Zhengzhou’s East Railway station are currently trialling smart sunglasses that give them the ability to perform near-instant facial recognition of suspects.
The glasses slightly resemble Google Glass but are darker and, suitably, more sinister-looking.
The sunglasses send images to a 10,000-person database of suspected criminals and can identify them within one-tenth of a second, according to manufacturer LLVision.
Zhengzhou, which is often described as an “emerging megacity”, has a population of almost 10 million people. Police have been equipped with the sunglasses to test them out during Chinese Lunar New Year, a time in which citizens flood the train stations to travel and see family.
It is thought that criminals on the lam often use the cover of the busy celebration to flee.
Chinese local media reports that seven suspects wanted for serious crimes have already been caught and another 26 have been busted for travelling with false identities. That was all in five days, which makes the experiment a success by one measure.
But there are other measures, too, and the glasses predictably give rise to privacy concerns.
“The potential to give individual police officers facial recognition technology in sunglasses could eventually make China’s surveillance state all the more ubiquitous,” Amnesty International’s William Nee told the Wall Street Journal/a>.
China already has more CCTV cameras than any other country, with an estimate of around 600 million to be installed by 2020.
The old argument is that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. But in a country like China, which punishes those who hold dissenting beliefs, this argument goes out the window.
It was recently reported that China was using facial recognition technology to monitor ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, a predominantly Muslim region in China’s far west. According to Bloomberg, a system was trialled in which authorities were alerted when certain groups went more than 300 metres outside designated “safe areas”.
The result of all this overreach is reminiscent of the Panopticon, a type of building designed by philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham back in the 18th century.
Bentham envisioned a facility in which all the occupants could be observed by a single person at all times. The kicker was that all the occupants couldn’t tell if they were being watched or not. As such, they would be compelled to constantly control their own behaviour.
The crucial difference, in case you haven’t already guessed, was this:
Bentham was describing a prison.
Image: China News Service