Surveillance or Sustainability? A look into the use of Facial recognition for waste treatment in China

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Facial recognition use in China, Reuters

A new waste plan

In July 2019, the Shanghai municipality introduced strict legislation making recycling mandatory for its 33 million inhabitants. Going against this system may result in fines. But how can such compliance be monitored? The Vanke Foundation, a Chinese urban services provider, concluded in a Shanghai survey that only a quarter of respondents knew how to sort their trash anyway.

Moving northward to the Xicheng neighbourhood of Beijing, the use of facial recognition technology in waste treatment appears as the clear solution. The method is simple: register yourself into the system, look into the camera and your bin of choice opens. However, should you wish to remain anonymous, you will not be able to throw away your trash and will be penalised. As these tests were well received by the community, further Chinese cities will be implementing the technology for waste treatment in 2020. Shanghai is set to follow suit.

Waste management is at the forefront of Xi Jinping’s (General Secretary CPC) sustainability strategy for China. Incineration in landfills causes the well-known fog lingering atop Chinese cities. Clean air is no doubt a pillar of the clean image he is trying to build for his country on the international stage. Global concerns for climate change and ecological degradation are increasing by the day, and with 27.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, China has a major role to play within this framework. Facial recognition forces correct waste treatment upon the population, hence it will inevitably increase the country’s recycling rate (currently 20%), bringing it closer to neighbouring Japan and South Korea.

However, behind a technology presented as contributing to a better planet lies an agent for social control, that exemplifies the authoritarian excesses of the Chinese state, as well as the opposition between the two dominant value systems of the 21st century. Are the people of  China looking into the cameras for sustainability or surveillance?

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Confucius and his students

Firmly set in Chinese society

In China, facial recognition has been applied by business in diverse contexts. Dating site Jiayuan allows users to make searches based on their physical preferences. Didi Chuxing, a Chinese equivalent of BlaBlaCar, uses biometrics to confirm a driver’s identity and deem the ride safe. In healthcare, people can now pay for medication with the technology, which renders prescriptions obsolete. Alibaba wants to mainstream facial payment, having launched its ‘smile to pay’ option at KFC restaurants back in 2017.

Meanwhile the state uses the same software (Megvii, SenseTime) for inland and migration security. An estimated 170 million CCTV cameras operate in China, and now these can pick out one person among thousands; China claims such tech will be used to track fugitives and locate missing people. But most importantly, it applies facial recognition to facilitate the implementation of its social credit system.

A notation economy

Rongcheng is a good example to understand the social credit in its most basic form in China. In this coastal city labelled the Social Credit Laboratory, each of the 670,000 inhabitants is given a score of one thousand points. Housing and payment companies, supermarkets and banks, among others, feed information on each citizen to the local government, who consequently tracks behaviour. On top of this, cameras are set up all over the city. If you drive through a red light, they pick this up and you lose points. If you give your seat away on public transport, you earn points. Below a certain number of points, you lose certain privileges, like access to private schools or aeroplane tickets. 40 such credit programmes operate in China at the moment, and the government plans to unite these into a national system in 2020. 

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Black Mirror Nosedive episode, GettyImages

The aim of the social credit system and in turn of facial recognition, is to ‘raise the awareness of integrity and the level of trustworthiness of Chinese society’ (translated from Chinese government page). Confucius, a key figure of Chinese philosophy and great influence on Xi Jinping, often used the  word ‘credit’ in his writings to represent honesty. Confucian social control is that of ‘hierarchical harmony’, with the state presented as a pater familias, a figure that looks after the family, in this case society. However, it has become more difficult than ever before for the government to fulfill such a role, as its 1.4 billion people have gained higher access to money, talent and information.

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Social credit rating, Wired, Kevin Hong

Facial recognition holds a central place in the government’s plan for the future because it prevents the ‘harmony’ from disjointing. As such it is the contemporary catalyst for social unity. For much of the Chinese population, this is an efficient system. In fact, The Berlin-based Mercator Institute states that ‘Rather than perceiving social credit as an instrument of surveillance, the urban Chinese see them as a way to protect consumers from food scandals or financial fraud – and to access benefits connected to a high social credit score’. Statistics from the Freie University even show that an average of 50% of Chinese survey respondents strongly agree with the system.

Facial recognition for repression

Surveillance has recently spiralled out of control for Beijing. The day that Shanghai’s new waste system came into effect coincided with the beginning of protests in Hong Kong. Initially a march in opposition to the Extradition Law Amendment Bill, these have come to embody the friction between the two systems of governance. One of the  striking features is that protesters wear face masks to hide from surveillance cameras, as the mainland state collects their identities.

A further example is the ongoing treatment of the Uighur, a Muslim minority from the western region of Xinjiang. One million Uighurs have been placed in re-education camps, supposedly aimed at eliminating religious extremism in China. The technology facilitates the tracking of 11 million people’s behaviour. Such repression, repeatedly condemned by the West, has tarnished facial recognition on the international stage. In jeopardising individual liberties, this now well-known A.I would appear to challenge the notions of democracy and universalism, firmly accepted in Western societies.

A false good idea

In today’s epoch, appearing as a champion of sustainability has become a symbol of a country’s leadership credibility. I see facial recognition’s progressive introduction into waste management as a way of legitimising the technology in all its other uses. If it successfully reduces pollution rates, it will be considered a positive technology in the fight against climate change. However, this cannot justify its obstruction of human rights and security.

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Face masks against repression in Hong Kong, Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

Furthermore, such efforts would need to be replicated in other policies of China’s environmental agenda if the aim was truly to reduce the country’s carbon footprint. Eliminating its dependence on coal for electricity generation and industry is the vital challenge; could Xi Jinping decide to one day monitor people’s energy use? For recycling, if efficiency in obtaining results is the government’s prime objective, then surely other methods could be employed. For example, the Swedish government engendered a circular economy nationwide in 2012 by modifying taxation on used items and pushing companies to offer discounts for recycling. This resulted in exceeding targets in every category, with 50% of plastic recyled in 2018.

The outlook of Chinese and Western societies on state surveillance is very different; while the technology is progressively replacing other forms of identification in China, the European Commission is drafting legislation that will allow citizens to choose how their data from facial recognition is used. In September, France’s Alicem software planned to introduce by facial identification for all administrative procedures online, but following outcry on social media, the government chose to delay implementation. Testing phase had not even begun, and yet the controversy was there. The gap between two societies’ outlook on biometric data demonstrates  an underlying social opposition. In such a global challenge as climate change where unified efforts are key, I believe that facial recognition will only serve to escalate a new oppositional bipolarity between China and the West.

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