China Starts Using Facial Recognition-Enabled 'Smart' Locks In Its Public Housing

from the just-wait-until-they-know-your-citizen-score-too dept

Surveillance using facial recognition is sweeping the world. That's partly for the usual reason that the underlying digital technology continues to become cheaper, more powerful and thus more cost-effective. But it's also because facial recognition can happen unobtrusively, at a distance, without people being aware of its deployment. In any case, many users of modern smartphones have been conditioned to accept it unthinkingly, because it's a quick and easy way to unlock their device. This normalization of facial recognition is potentially bad news for privacy and freedom, as this story in the South China Morning Post indicates:

Beijing is speeding up the adoption of facial recognition-enabled smart locks in its public housing programmes as part of efforts to clamp down on tenancy abuse, such as illegal subletting.

The face-scanning system is expected to cover all of Beijing's public housing projects, involving a total of 120,000 tenants, by the end of June 2019

Although a desire to stop tenancy abuses sounds reasonable enough, it's important to put the move in a broader context. As Techdirt reported back in 2017, China is creating a system storing the facial images of every Chinese citizen, with the ability to identify any one of them in three seconds. Although the latest use of facial recognition with "smart" locks is being run by the Beijing authorities, such systems don't exist in isolation. Everything is being cross-referenced and linked together to ensure a complete picture is built up of every citizen's activities -- resulting in what is called the "citizen score" or "social credit" of an individual. China said last year that it would start banning people with "bad" citizen scores from using planes and trains for up to a year. Once the "smart" locks are in place, it would be straightforward to make them part of the social credit system and its punishments -- for example by imposing a curfew on those living at an address, or only allowing certain "approved" visitors.

Even without using "smart" locks in this more extreme way, the facial recognition system could record everyone who came visiting, and how long they stayed, and transmit that data to a central monitoring station. The scope for abuse by the authorities is wide. If nothing else, it's a further reminder that if you are not living in China, where you may not have a choice, installing "smart" Internet of things devices voluntarily may not be that smart.

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Filed Under: china, facial recognition, privacy, public housing, smart locks, surveillance

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  1. icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 7 Jan 2019 @ 6:42pm

    Seems bad all around, and doesn't accomplish the goal either.

    Great, so now someone only needs a good picture of someones face to get in. And what about the children, as they grow up their faces change, and one day they won't be able to go home?

    Then there's the idea of curfews, if I get home late I have to spend the night on the street? Or I invite some acquaintance over, not knowing their 'social score' and find they can't get in? Or worse, meet them at the door an let a 'socially unacceptable' person in, not knowing (or maybe knowing) they are 'socially unacceptable' (probably meaning anti-government control, but could be actually bad)?

    So this is just another step in the government taking control over the population, at least until the population decides it doesn't want that control anymore. There are an awful lot of them.

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

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Jan 2019 @ 8:35pm

    Re: Seems bad all around, and doesn't accomplish the goal either

    Unfortunately the population shows very little signs of not wanting the control.

    If you're a citizen with a good social credit score there is next to no reason to doubt the system. In fact many "model citizens" operate under the indoctrinated belief that if you're considered morally upright, you have nothing to fear. Never mind that failing the system is as easy as doing something in the grey area such as exposing corruption. And the system is inherently designed to make comebacks impossible.

    It's out_of_the_blue's wet dream.

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

  3. identicon
    Pixelation, 7 Jan 2019 @ 9:37pm

    That'll learn 'em

    Just wait until the people of China start wearing Winnie the Pooh masks and are allowed into any government building.

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

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Jan 2019 @ 10:09pm

    What a F---g day. I get hit in the face by a fly ball. Ignoring the shiner I pick up, I chase the batter through a field, only to step in a bee hive. I swell up like the elephant man, so I can barely see.

    All I want is to get in my F---g apartment, take some aspirin and antihistamine, put an icepack on, and sleep for a week.

    And now the F---g door won't let me in.


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

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Jan 2019 @ 10:27pm

    Most people tend to see smart phones as their property. Normalizing facial recognition on one's own property is a very different prospect than normalizing it for commercial or governmental use.

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

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 4:10am

    Well... It's a "facial recognition system", yes. What you don't seem to have quite cottoned on to in your articule is that it's also a camera.
    The capabilities of this system do not stop at the doorway to the homes in question; they extend out into the apartment hallways and roads the doors face, too.

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

  7. icon
    JoeCool (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 5:55am

    Look on the bright side!

    At least their database doesn't need much storage - there's only one image! ;)

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

  8. icon
    ShadowNinja (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 7:35am

    I'm sure robbery and home break-ins will also become a lot more common in China thanks to this.

    There was a story (that Techdirt reported on I believe) where facial recognition thought that 36 then current members of congress (out of 435) were matches with criminals already sitting behind bars. That's an 8% failure rate, which is scary high for a lock on your door.

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

  9. icon
    JoeCool (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 7:39am


    Another consideration - can these locks be bypassed by holding a picture of the person up to the camera? That's fairly commonly case for nearly all facial recognition today.

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

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 9:22am

    What a dumb idea, what could possibly go wrong.
    Oh, wait - I think that is the point - they want it to screw with the lives of the minions because it's fun watching them scurry around.

    On a side note, I recall a story about a major city in China with a pollution problem so bad that it interfered with their facial recognition city wide spy system - and this was the only reason they actively tried to clean up the air.

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

  11. identicon
    Sharur, 8 Jan 2019 @ 10:00am

    Re: Criminals "Behind Bars"

    I thought it was less "criminal behind bars" (and how would a facial recognition system know that?) and more "here's a selection of mugshots, let's run it against the membership of Congress).

    Which begs the question what the correct % to flag to be is(and what was in the mugshot collection), because it seems unlikely to me that no one the whole of Congress has ever been arrested and booked.

    Also it's a different kind of error than the Congress example(false positive vs false negative), which may have a different error rate entirely.

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

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 11:17am

    I'll be curious to see how far China is able to push the social score based totalitarianism before push back from their population.

    Culturally ethics in practice differs from what is seen in the west. I see constant effort to game the agreement or the rules of society. This plays out in our observation of delivery of steel or other products that may not meet agreed upon specs or include some hidden defect. We see this when tutoring exchange students in US Universities, there is open agitating for advanced access to tests or other privileged information not made available by the professor rather than focus on the topics. We see this in the professional world where H1B employees tend to be more likely pad billable hours or other other performance related reports.

    My expectation is that social credit turns into a game where everyone games the score at all times and methods develop to pay for improved score.

    This assumption leads to interesting scenarios. Does China detect the gaming of the citizen score systems, and hold accountable those involved in the practice? Will selective enforcement become the norm?

    If the system is applied honestly we'll see the frog notice the boil and an increase in social unrest. I'll be curious to observe how it plays out.

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

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 12:36pm


    The system being deployed in China looks to be an additional avenue for corruption.

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

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