WATCH: BBC reporter tracked down in 7 minutes by high-tech Chinese surveillance cams
Police in the southern city of Guiyang were tasked with locating reporter John Sudworth using only an image of him and their massive network of surveillance cameras with sophisticated facial recognition technology. It took them a mere 7 minutes to complete the task in a city of more than 4 million. Spoooooky.
While China already has some 170 million CCTV cameras, it’s looking to install another 400 million or so in the next three years. These cameras will be able to match your ID card with your face and your face with your car, tracking your movements back one week, recording all of the people that you came into contact with. The network is targeted at not only preventing crime, but predicting it before it happens.
Of course, this kind of Minority Report-style surveillance network would seem to raise some rather big ethical questions — though one Guiyang policewoman didn’t think so.
“For ordinary people we will only extract their data when they need our help,” she told the BBC. “When they don’t need our help, we won’t gather their data, and it remains only in our database. We only use it when needed.”
“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” Sudworth says, a quote that has been attributed to Goebbels.
“Yes, that’s true. Citizens don’t need to worry,” she responds.
However, Ji Feng, a Chinese government critic and poet, isn’t so convinced.
“Hi-tech cameras will make security maintenance easier for police,” he said. “And if the police mindset doesn’t change, the surveillance on dissidents may intensify.”
Of course, another big question is why in the world the Guiyang police decided to show off their 1984-esque control room to the BBC. On Twitter, some speculated that Chinese companies were now hoping to export their tech to authoritarian countries around the world, as well as to the United Kingdom.
The BBC report has also been making waves on Chinese social media, though some netizens were not so impressed. “It can arrest a criminal in 7 minutes, but it won’t be able to catch a corrupt official for decades. A better system is more important than better technology,” one Weibo user commented.
“But when you really need the surveillance system, they’ll tell you it’s broken,” added another.