Big brother is busy scanning your face

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Last year, I spent several weeks in a fascinating city called Jinhua in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. The prefecture-level metropolis is easily the Asian country’s richest region in terms of per capita income and other indicators of human development.

If you want to see how China has spectacularly leapfrogged the powerful nations of Europe to become—within a few decades—the world’s second biggest economy, this is the place to visit.

During my stay in Jinhua, I had the opportunity to tour the premises of a large corporation in the digital security sector. The company is in the business of installing and maintaining public surveillance cameras across most parts of the city. The vast web of cameras keeps watch over the sprawling urban zone, providing a live feed of virtually everything that happens in public. Seated in the company’s state-of-the-art control room, you can witness, in real-time, a car accident, a robbery, or two lovers stealing a kiss on the banks of the Wu River.

The public surveillance cameras can be a useful tool for urban planners who seek economic data on traffic volumes or in deciding where to provide new street lighting and other public amenities. In that sense, the technology offers remarkable convenience.

But there is a flip side. Public surveillance cameras make it easier for the authorities to crush dissent and violate civil liberties by thwarting protests and snooping on perceived enemies of the state. This raises the “big brother” spectre of George Orwell’s 1984. Life under the jackboot of permanent surveillance is not my idea of fun.

I am raising this issue after hearing that the government of Zimbabwe recently entered into what has been described as “a strategic partnership” with a Chinese company, CloudWalk Technology, to embark on a large-scale facial recognition programme in this country. The firm uses “3D structured light facial recognition technology”. With such technology, it is possible to establish a person’s national identification particulars, for instance, by just digitally analysing a picture showing thousands of faces at a political rally.

The agreement is backed by the Chinese government and, as it transpires, the technology will be used primarily for law enforcement and security. There is also an understanding, as part of the deal, that the scope of the facial recognition project could be expanded as the Zimbabwean government sees fit.

In the wrong hands, such technology can become an instrument of oppression. Besides, it’s difficult to ignore all the legal, constitutional, ethical and moral questions that inevitably arise. Is it right and proper, for example, for the government to surrender the personal data of citizens to a private company that is not accountable to anyone?

What will stop an illiberal government from using such technology to persecute critics, dissenters, activists and journalists?

Law-abiding citizens deserve protection from Stalinist demagogues and the best way of achieving this is through eternal vigilance, legislative safeguards and judicial restraint.

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