The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A suspect tried to blend in with 60,000 concertgoers. China’s facial-recognition cameras caught him.

China is pursuing an ambitious plan to make an omnipresent video surveillance network. The Post's Simon Denyer looks at the technology behind it all. (Video: Simon Denyer, Shirley Feng, Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

The 31-year-old man, wanted by police, had thought playing a numbers game would be enough to allow him to fade into anonymity.

The population of China is a staggering 1.4 billion people, give or take a few million.

More than 45 million of them live in Jiangxi province in southeast China, and 5 million of those people are concentrated in Nanchang, the province's capital.

On the night of April 7, nearly 60,000 people — or roughly 1 percent of the city's population — had gathered at the Nanchang International Sports Center for a concert by Cantopop legend Jacky Cheung.

Who could ever locate a single person in such a crowd?

And so it was there, amid the sea of faces in a packed stadium, with everyone's attention presumably turned to the stage, that the fugitive assumed he was safe from authorities.

But in the middle of an upbeat electronic song about summer romance, a pair of police officers began descending the aisles, according to footage posted on the Chinese video sharing site Miaopai. Soon, they had arrived at the row they were looking for and apprehended the 31-year-old.

Before Cheung had finished singing the refrain, officers were escorting the man out of the show.

The man, identified only by his surname Ao, was reportedly wanted for “economic crimes,” according to Kan Kan News. Details about Ao had been in a national database, and when he had arrived at the stadium, cameras at the entrances with facial-recognition technology had identified him — and flagged authorities, the news site reported.

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“He was completely shocked when we took him away,” police officer Li Jin told Xinhua news agency. “He couldn't fathom that police could so quickly capture him in a crowd of 60,000.”

Ao's unlikely capture became the latest example of China's growing use of facial-recognition technology.

As The Washington Post's Simon Denyer reported, law enforcement and security officials in China hope to use such technology to track suspects and even predict crimes. Ultimately, officials there want to create a comprehensive, nationwide surveillance system known as “Xue Liang,” or “Sharp Eyes” to monitor the movements of its citizens:

At the back end, these efforts merge with a vast database of information on every citizen, a “Police Cloud” that aims to scoop up such data as criminal and medical records, travel bookings, online purchase and even social media comments — and link it to everyone’s identity card and face.
A goal of all of these interlocking efforts: to track where people are, what they are up to, what they believe and who they associate with — and ultimately even to assign them a single “social credit” score based on whether the government and their fellow citizens consider them trustworthy.

Images from Denyer's visits to three technology companies showed people monitoring cars and people as they passed through an intersection. Attached to each entity were text bubbles that showed identifying characteristics: the person's gender and home town, for example.

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“Surveillance technologies are giving the government a sense that it can finally achieve the level of control over people’s lives that it aspires to,” Adrian Zenz, a German academic who has researched ethnic policy and the security state in China’s western province of Xinjiang, told Denyer.

Many have voiced their concerns about the ethical ramifications of such a system.

Human Rights Watch has a page dedicated to mass surveillance and the use of “big data” in China.

Maya Wang, a senior researcher at the group, said in February that China was aggregating data about its citizens to build policing programs in Xinjiang — and then using the information they had gathered to target ethnic minorities in the western Chinese province.

“For the first time, we are able to demonstrate that the Chinese government’s use of big data and predictive policing not only blatantly violates privacy rights, but also enables officials to arbitrarily detain people,” Wang wrote. “People in Xinjiang can’t resist or challenge the increasingly intrusive scrutiny of their daily lives because most don’t even know about this ‘black box’ program or how it works.”

As for Ao, the man caught at the Jacky Cheung concert, he said he thought he would be safe in a crowd of tens of thousands, Kan Kan News reported. He and some friends had bought the concert tickets, and Ao had driven with his wife about 60 miles to see the show, according to the news site.

“If I had known [I would be caught], I wouldn't have gone,” he said.

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