Every day seems to bring a new article about China’s pervasive use of facial recognition technology. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have reported how widely China is using this technology, collecting and storing video evidence from cameras on every street corner and road, at apartment building entrances, and in businesses, malls, transportation hubs, and public toilets. The Chinese government seeks to consolidate this information with people’s criminal and medical records, travel plans, online purchases, and comments on social media. China would link all of this information to every citizen’s identification card and face, forming one omnipotent database.
Similarly, the Wall Street Journal produced a chilling long-form article tracking a journalist’s trip to Xinjiang province. The piece details not just the use of facial recognition software but also more intrusive steps such as the use of DNA collection, iris scanning, voice-pattern analysis, phone scanners, ID card swipes, and security checkpoints, all to further suppress unrest among the predominantly Muslim Uighur population. The piece frames life in Xinjiang as a forecast of what’s to come in China more broadly.
These developments feel relatively distant, both geographically and as a matter of current U.S. domestic practice. Our government does not collect video feeds from cameras in public toilets and private apartment buildings. Nor does it possess a database containing every citizen’s photograph. Nevertheless, federal and local government agencies in the United States are increasing their use of facial recognition software at the border and in law enforcement contexts. There are a range of second-order questions that we should begin to think about as facial recognition software continues to improve and as its use expands, both within and beyond China’s borders.
Ashley S. Deeks, China’s Total Information Awareness: Second Order Challenges, Lawfare (January 16, 2018).