China deploys new facial recognition glasses

Konstantin Sheiko
February 12, 2018

The idea of internet-enabled glasses that Google attempted to introduce five years ago did not take off. Now the Chinese police have re-invented the concept of the Internet powered glasses and applied it as one of the many law-enforcement mechanisms. Dark sunglasses equipped with facial recognition technology are used to spot criminal suspects in China. The glasses, which are being worn by police at a busy train stations ahead of the Chinese New Year travel rush during which the Chinese will make an estimated 3 billion trips, are linked to a central database which contains details of criminal records. Around 389 million train trips are expected to take place during this year's Spring Festival, as well as 65 million trips by air. Chinese police officers are now cool looking, well prepared, and deadly effective. 

Wearing the technology enables the police officers to almost instantly view an individual’s personal record details, including name, ethnicity, gender and address. Using this new technology, police officers at the Zhengzhou East Railway Station have arrested seven people who were suspected of being involved in kidnapping and hit-and-run cases during an operation which began last week, media reported. They have also detained another 26 people who were using fake identification cards. Pictures of the operation, which were published online by the web version of China's People's Daily newspaper, show a female police officer wearing dark black sunglasses which have a small camera attached on the right-hand lens.    

The camera is connected by an electronic lead to a hand-held device. Facial recognition software is being combined with advanced optics and networking to pinpoint potential suspects, and this technology is sophisticated enough to work well even in crowded subways and shopping malls with thousands of individuals moving around at the same time. It captures faces as they turn towards the camera, applying a standardised set of measurements to each face before comparing it with a portable database in much the same way fingerprints are assessed. The glasses feed a constant stream of images back to a processor attached to the officer’s uniform webbing. Basically, aside from being portable, the major difference between these devices and typical facial recognition systems is that the database used for comparing images is now always in the officer’s hand held device rather than the cloud.  

The device has an app where police officers can process images they have taken of suspicious individuals. According to Zhang Xiaolei, a local police official, “The facial information captured by the glasses will be sent back to a database for comparison with the information of suspects on the wanted list,” he told the Global Times newspaper. The app allows access to the database that also provides information on whether the suspect is on the run from police, and even their recent Internet history. The facial recognition glasses can process 10,000 faces within one-tenth of a second as the tests have demonstrated, its manufacturers claim, although real-life use cases might prove to be a little slower, due to “environmental noise”. 

The speed of processing and the fact the glasses are being worn by officers gives makes facial recognition a major asset on the police beat, the news service reports. It says officers are able to respond before suspects are able to blend back into a crowd, helping them to maintain contact in any pursuit. Security-obsessed China has the largest network of surveillance cameras in the world. Chinese law-enforcement is openly deploying new technologies to monitor people in ways that would unnerve many in the West. Obviously, there are privacy concerns regarding this technology and not everyone believes police should be using it. Amnesty International’s William Nee told the Wall Street Journal, “The potential to give individual police officers facial recognition technology in sunglasses could eventually make China's surveillance state all the more ubiquitous”. 

Last month, reports surfaced that China was using facial recognition to geo-fence residents of the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang region of the country, a move that has attracted criticism from a number of human rights groups. China is also working on building a facial recognition database that will contain info on all of its 1.3 billion citizens, and it has assembled biometric data for most of its citizens.  

The stated objective of this network is to identify and locate any of its citizens within three seconds. The devices were created by Beijing-based LLVision Technology Co., which developed the facial recognition system with police departments in the provinces of Henan, Shandong, and Xinjiang. The company produces wearable video cameras as well and while it sells those to anyone, it's vetting buyers for its facial recognition devices. And, for now, it isn't selling them to consumers. The eyeglasses are part of a growing number of tech tools, which also include a social credit system (think social media meets your credit score) and a crackdown on VPNs that allow users to access banned international websites, that China is deploying as part of its growing web of control of the Internet, and the conversations that happen on it. Facial recognition has been rolled out in many aspects of every day life in the country, where there are few concerns over privacy. The technology is being used to gain entry to university dormitories and workplaces, withdraw cash from ATM machines, or even buy a KFC.