Amid tightening regulations around the technology ecosystem, now the Chinese administration has sought surveillance tools upgrades from the top companies in the country. According to a recent government report, following the new orders, dozens of Chinese firms have built software that uses artificial intelligence to sort data collected on residents. As per the publicly available data, more than a dozen entities in China have over the past four years bought such software, known as ‘one person, one file'. The technology improves on existing software, which simply collects data but leaves it to people to organise.
“The system has the ability to learn independently and can optimize the accuracy of file creation as the number of data increases. (Faces that are) partially blocked, masked, or wearing glasses, and low-resolution portraits can also be archived relatively accurately,” according to a tender published in July by the public security department of Henan, China's third-largest province by population.
According to reports, the new software improves on Beijing's current approach to surveillance. Although China's existing systems can collect data on individuals, law enforcement and other users have been left to organise it.
Another limitation of current surveillance software is its inability to connect an individual's personal details to a real-time location except at security checkpoints such as those in airports. While ‘one person, one file' sorts information that makes it easier to track individuals.
Besides the police units, 10 bids were opened by Chinese Communist Party bodies responsible for political and legal affairs. China's Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission declined to comment.
According to government documents, some of the software's users, such as schools, wanted to monitor unfamiliar faces outside their compounds. The majority, such as police units in southwestern Sichuan province's Ngawa prefecture, mainly populated by Tibetans, ordered it for more explicit security purposes. The Ngawa tender describes the software as being for “maintaining political security, social stability, and peace among the people.”
Beijing says its monitoring is crucial to combating crime and has been key to its efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19. Human rights activists such as Human Rights Watch say that the country is building a surveillance state that infringes on privacy and unfairly targets certain groups, such as the Uyghur Muslim minority.
Highly populated districts of Beijing and underdeveloped provinces like Gansu have opened at least 50 tenders in the four years since the first patent application, 32 of which were opened for bidding in 2021. Twenty-two tech companies, including SenseTime, Huawei, Megvii, Cloudwalk, Dahua, and the cloud division of Baidu, now offer such software.
Huawei said in a statement that a partner had developed the one person, one file application in its smart city platform. The company declined to comment on the patent applications. “Huawei does not develop or sell applications that target any specific group of people,” the company stated.
The new systems aim to make sense of the giant troves of data such entities collect, using complex algorithms and machine learning to create customised files for individuals, according to the government tenders. The files update themselves automatically as the software sorts data.
A wide range of challenges can complicate implementation, however. Bureaucracy and even cost can create a fragmented and disjointed nationwide network, three AI and surveillance experts told news agency Reuters.