Details Emerge Of World's Biggest Facial Recognition Surveillance System, Aiming To Identify Any Chinese Citizen In Three Seconds
from the but-what-happens-when-the-dataset-leaks-out? dept
Back in July, Techdirt wrote about China’s plan to build a massive surveillance system based on 600 million CCTV cameras around the country. Key to the system would be facial recognition technology that would allow Chinese citizens to be identified using a pre-existing centralized image database plus billions more photos found on social networks. Lingering doubts about whether China is going ahead with such an unprecedented surveillance system may be dispelled by an article in the South China Morning Post, which provides additional details:
China is building the world’s most powerful facial recognition system with the power to identify any one of its 1.3 billion citizens within three seconds.
The goal is for the system to able to match someone’s face to their ID photo with about 90 per cent accuracy.
The project, launched by the Ministry of Public Security in 2015, is under development in conjunction with a security company based in Shanghai.
The article says that the system will use cloud computing facilities to process images from the millions of CCTV cameras located across the country. The company involved is Isvision, which has been using facial recognition with CCTV cameras since 2003. The earliest deployments were in the highly-sensitive Tiananmen Square area. Other hotspots where its technology has been installed are Tibet and Xinjiang, where surveillance has been at a high level for many years.
However, the report also cautions that the project is encountering “many difficulties” due to the technical limits of facial recognition and the sheer size of the database involved. A Chinese researcher is quoted as saying that some totally unrelated people in China have faces so alike that even their parents cannot tell them apart. Another issue is managing the biometric data, which is around 13 terabytes for the facial information, and 90 terabytes for the full dataset, which includes additional personal details on everyone in China.
As the South China Morning Post article rightly notes, it won’t be long before 13 terabytes will fit on a single portable USB hard drive, which raises the issue of facial recognition data being copied and used for other unauthorized purposes:
But a network security vendor for the Ministry of Public Security dismissed the possibility.
“To download the whole data set is as difficult as launching a missile with a nuclear warhead. It requires several high-ranking officials to insert and turn their keys at the same time,” the vendor said.
Given all that we know about the lamentable state of computer security around the world, even for highly-sensitive data, that claim seems a little hyperbolic. Since the Chinese government is apparently determined to build and operate this huge facial recognition system despite all the challenges, the unnamed network security vendor quoted above may find out the hard way that exfiltrating some or even all of that data really isn’t rocket science.