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China's 'Big Brother' surveillance technology is impressive and chilling - but it's not nearly as all-seeing as the government wants you to think

Date: 03-08-18

The Chinese government is working to create a techno-authoritarian state powered by artificial intelligence and facial recognition to track and monitor its 1.4 billion citizens.

The government has big plans to have a ubiquitous surveillance network, leading the country to becoming the biggest market in the world for video surveillance - $6.4 billion in 2016, according to estimates from IHS Markit Ltd. China already has 170 million security cameras in use for its so-called Skynet surveillance system, with 400 million more on the way in the coming years.

Far from hiding its wide-reaching abilities from the public, the government has frequently touted its high-tech surveillance successes in recent months.

Last September, English-language state newspaper China Daily touted how police in Qingdao used facial recognition technology to catch 25 would-be criminals. In March, Beijing police began using facial recognition and AI-powered glasses to catch criminals - just a couple months after police in Henan and Zhengzhou began testing the glasses at train stations.

In Xiangyang, a giant screen was set up over a crosswalk to display the names and faces of jaywalkers and other lawbreakers that cameras caught at the intersection. And in December, China demonstrated its sophisticated "Skynet" system by having it track down a BBC reporter in just 7 minutes.

But all of these successes belie a simple reality: the surveillance tech is not nearly as pervasive or effective as the government or the media purports it to be.

On a recent visit to the offices of Megvii, a leading artificial intelligence startup and one of the main providers behind the facial recognition tech used by Chinese police, I met with Xie Yinan, the company's vice president.

Despite notions that Chinese police's facial recognition capabilities can track down anyone, anywhere, that's simply not what the technology is capable of, according to Xie.