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.

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  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 18 Oct 2017 @ 3:51am

    “Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.”
    ― George Orwell, 1984

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Narcissus (profile), 18 Oct 2017 @ 4:23am

    Keys?

    "It requires several high-ranking officials to insert and turn their keys at the same time,"

    They have to physically go somewhere, insert and turn their keys?That sounds really Cold-War-era like. So, every time they want to make a backup (which I assume would be at least daily) "several" officials need to go somewhere and turn a key?

    I have a feeling this Network Security Vendor just made this up.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Vidiot (profile), 18 Oct 2017 @ 5:08am

      Re: Keys?

      If they're going to spin that yarn, they should at least have it take place in a glassed-in, dramatically lit control room, with voiceprints and retina scans all around. And genital biometric devices. And then Jackie Chan breaks through the glass and...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2017 @ 8:07am

        Re: Re: Keys?

        Don't forget the glowing big red button in a glass case. No dramatically-lit control room is complete without a big button glowing red in its glass case.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2017 @ 4:52am

    90%

    90% huh? A naive reading of that means everyone you identify might really be 130 million other people.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 18 Oct 2017 @ 6:09am

      Re: 90%

      I wonder how many of those 130 million people are criminals or dissidents, and what the false positive rate is. This has the potential to make the most egregious SWATting in the Western world look like nothing special.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Chris-Mouse (profile), 18 Oct 2017 @ 4:54am

    90% accurate, and the whole population of China in the database. I wonder how they're going to handle the tens of thousands of false alerts each and every day.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2017 @ 9:04am

      Re:

      I'm pretty sure you meant to say the 10's of thousand of false positives every second 90% isn't even close to reliable it's not even within 2 orders of magnitude of reliable

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Chris-Mouse (profile), 18 Oct 2017 @ 11:32am

        Re: Re:

        The local airport here handles about 60K passengers per day. 99.99999% accuracy would mean a false positive about once every other day. Acceptable, not great, but acceptable.
        To get the same level of false positive from all of China, you'd need to add three or four more nines to that accuracy figure.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2017 @ 4:58am

    90% accuracy is going to provide proof that Startrek Transporters exist, when someone enters a building in Lhasa and exits one in Beijing a few seconds latter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2017 @ 5:04am

    Facebook did it first.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Vidiot (profile), 18 Oct 2017 @ 5:21am

    I did some research last night with my associate General Tso, and I'm thinking that using four 256GB microSD cards per 1TB, the entire database could be smuggled out in a wonton.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 18 Oct 2017 @ 6:12am

      Re:

      You can get 2 TB SSDs that are literally the size of a stick of Wrigley's gum. Now imagine 45 sticks of gum, each one inserted into a normal pack of gum, and walking out the door on 45 people who have no idea they have them.

      Talk about security nightmares.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2017 @ 6:24am

        Re: Re:

        Hush, you will make the MPAA and RIA paranoid when the realize that everybody could carry a copy of their whole catalog in a chocolate-box, along with every book ever published.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2017 @ 6:03am

    Their silly idea will fail - lol, miserably.

    They already have had visibility problems caused by the huge air pollution which interferes with their cams ability to see what is happening much less recognize faces. Perhaps this is why they are investing in solar, not because it is a good idea - nooooo, it is because they have to watch you 24/7 due to their fear of the general populace which means they are probably paranoid schizophrenics - what better person to run your government - like ours is any better -:/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 18 Oct 2017 @ 9:05am

      Re:

      Worse, the air pollution means most people wear masks to be able to breath. What are they going to do, outlaw respirators/masks? ... Oh! OH!! I see the TRUE purpose behind this now! It's population control!! They outlaw masks, people die from pollution, population decreases drastically. Thus solving the problem without having to regulate births.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Hugo S Cunningham (profile), 18 Oct 2017 @ 6:06am

    Database will be absolutely secure.

    PRC authorities will be using the most up-to-date security ideas, that they hacked off of NSA...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2017 @ 7:19am

    " 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. "

    Complete lies. Remember, big brother is watching over you! Behave yourselves! (hint: it is not!)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2017 @ 8:01am

    "The goal is for the system to able to match someone's face to their ID photo with about 90 per cent accuracy."

    Did anyone do the math? 90% out of billion is horrid fucking accuracy! More innocents than actual criminals are going to get butt fucked by this bullshit!

    Every picture will match with about 13 million other folks. Not even 99% would be enough to be worth it!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2017 @ 8:34am

    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.

    This is easily solved. For every such pairing, mandate that one or both of them get a unique facial tattoo so that they don't look alike anymore. We could even make it a barcode so that some useful information can be stored there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2017 @ 9:20am

      Re:

      This exactly. Everyone in China gets a QR code tattooed on their forehead at birth.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Bergman (profile), 18 Oct 2017 @ 3:32pm

        Re: Re:

        It sounds silly, but the Chinese bureaucracy has done similar things historically.

        For example, the guy back during the Imperial days who was given the choice of changing his name or being executed for never in his 40-odd year life paying his taxes, because a clerk had made a spelling mistake on his birth certificate.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mason Wheeler, 18 Oct 2017 @ 8:51am

    The claimed 90% accuracy sounds impressive, except that China has a population of approximately 1.4 billion. 10% of that is close to half the entire population of the USA. If that many people are expected to get misidentified, that's gonna cause a lot of problems...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael, 18 Oct 2017 @ 9:40am

    "To download the whole data set is as difficult as launching a missile with a nuclear warhead."


    Is this supposed to be comforting that it is difficult, or disturbing that launching a nuclear warhead is as easy as downloading a database backup?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2017 @ 1:04pm

    Use an encrypted connection, so they cannot listen in your conversation. Just use Skype, with a VPN, so all they will get , if they try to wiretap you, is bunch of encrypted gobbledegook.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Châu, 18 Oct 2017 @ 5:16pm

    New Toy

    CIA and NSA will love this new toy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2017 @ 8:29pm

    I'm starting to see where Chris Dodd might've gone...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TRX (profile), 19 Oct 2017 @ 6:31am

    The problem with any facial recognition database is, there are fewer faces than people, so you're always going to have false positives.

    I have found *two* people who are my apparent identical twins. One of them was born in the same hospital I was, three days earlier. And we have the same name. He's probably the reason that no matter how often I try to correct credit reporting data, it doesn't stay fixed.

    The other is a mass murderer and terrorist in Palestine, one of the top five now that bin Laden is gone.

    One of these days I'm going to walk into a Federal building that's running their facial recognition system - comp.risks wrote about the first systems in the 1980s - and their alarms are going to go TILT. And if I'm in a bad mood that day, it's going to be on like Donkey Kong.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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