In brief: China is currently testing surveillance systems that are supposedly able to detect people’s emotions. While it shouldn’t come as a surprise, the underlying technology isn’t working as well as advertised, but the Chinese government has already started rolling it out in western China.
China’s idea of smart cities apparently also includes emotion recognition hardware installed in public spaces. Recently, a surveillance tech expo held in Shenzhen was filled with all manner of surveillance systems the country wants to install in airports, subways, and shopping malls to help identify criminals. Attending companies include Baidu and Huawei, the latter of which is close to getting a reprieve from the trade ban.
All of this is part of a broad push for more advanced surveillance in the region, as China is looking to eventually be able to predict crimes using machine learning. The idea might sound like something out of Minority Report, but several companies like Hikvision, Sensetime, and iFlytek have already jumped in on the opportunity, and as a result were promptly added to the US trade blacklist.
According to a report from the Financial Times, the emotion recognition tech is currently being deployed in Xinjiang, a region known to be the home of over one million Muslims that are being held in internment camps. This appears to be the country’s favorite spot for testing surveillance systems, especially facial scanning tech.
Li Xiaoyu, a policing expert from Xinjiang, noted that “using video footage, emotion recognition can rapidly identify criminal suspects by analyzing their mental state… to prevent illegal acts including terrorism and smuggling.”
However, security experts cast doubt on technology’s ability to accurately detect human emotions. ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley told Axios “the science on emotion recognition is pretty bogus,” and some studies show that linking emotional states to facial expressions properly “regardless of context, person, and culture” is difficult, if not impossible.
The good news — especially for Chinese citizens — is the new surveillance tech isn’t ready for high scale production and has been described as a “gimmick.” And while companies like Microsoft, Google and Amazon have their own facial recognition systems in the works, they openly admit to their rudimentary capabilities.
Huawei has been accused of producing communications infrastructure that is prone to exploits to serve Chinese espionage efforts, but the company has repeatedly denied involvement with any particular government. On the other hand, to see the company pitching its 5G and AI tech at a surveillance tech expo is likely to turn up the paranoia knobs of critics and regulators to eleven.
This isn’t the first time in recent history that China has made a controversial move to increase citizen surveillance. The country has also been testing gait-recognition and even gone as far as building a social credit system and an app that maps “deadbeat debtors,” so they can be publicly shamed by others.