China is using AI software to improve its surveillance capabilities

BEIJING, April 8 (Reuters) – Dozens of Chinese firms have developed software that uses artificial intelligence to sort data collected on residents, amid high demand from agencies looking to improve their surveillance tools, such as a Reuters review of government documents indicates.

Dozens of companies in China have purchased such software, known as “one person, one file,” over the past four years, according to more than 50 public-facing documents examined by Reuters. The technology improves on existing software that simply collects data but leaves the organization to humans.

“The system is capable of learning and can optimize the accuracy of file creation as the amount of data increases. (Faces that are) partially blocked, masked, or wearing glasses, and low-resolution portraits can also be archived relatively accurately,” according to a tender released in July by the Public Security Department of Henan, China’s third-largest province by population.

The Henan Public Security Department did not respond to requests for comment on the system and its use.

The new software improves Beijing’s current surveillance approach. Although China’s existing systems can collect data on individuals, it has been left to law enforcement and other users to organize.

According to Jeffrey Ding, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, another limitation of current surveillance software is its inability to connect an individual’s personal information to a real-time location except at security checkpoints like those at airports.

A Tiandy surveillance camera overlooks a highway in Beijing, China, December 14, 2021.
A Tiandy surveillance camera overlooks a highway in Beijing, China, December 14, 2021.

One person, one file “is a way of sorting information that makes it easier to track individuals,” said Mareike Ohlberg, a Berlin-based senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

China’s Ministry of Public Security, which oversees regional police departments, did not respond to a request for comment on a person, a file and their surveillance purposes. In addition to the police units, 10 bids were opened by Chinese Communist Party organs in charge of political and legal affairs. China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission declined to comment.

The tenders reviewed by Reuters represent a fraction of efforts by Chinese police units and party organs to improve surveillance networks by harnessing the power of big data and AI, according to three industry experts interviewed for the story.

According to government documents, some users of the software, such as schools, wanted to monitor unfamiliar faces outside their premises.

The majority, such as police units in Ngawa Prefecture in southwestern Sichuan province, which is mostly inhabited by Tibetans, ordered it for more explicit security reasons. The Ngawa tender describes the software as “to maintain political security, social stability and peace among the people”.

Ngawa’s Public Safety Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Beijing says its surveillance is vital to fighting crime and has been key in its efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. Human rights activists like Human Rights Watch say the country is building a surveillance state that violates privacy and unfairly targets certain groups like the Uyghur Muslim minority.

The Reuters review shows that local authorities across the country, including in populous districts of Beijing and underdeveloped provinces like Gansu, have opened at least 50 tenders in the four years since the first patent application, 32 of which were opened for tender in 2021. According to a Reuters review, 22 tech companies including Sensetime, Huawei, Megvii, Cloudwalk, Dahua and Baidu’s cloud division now offer such software.

Sensetime declined to comment. Megvii, Cloudwalk, Dahua and Baidu’s cloud division did not respond to requests for comment.

Huawei said in a statement that a partner developed the One Person, One File application in its smart city platform. The company declined to comment on the patent filings.

“Huawei does not develop or sell applications that target a specific group of people,” the company said.

The documents reviewed by Reuters cover 22 of China’s 31 main administrative departments and all levels of provincial government, from regional public security departments to party offices for a single district.

The new systems aim to make sense of the vast amounts of data such companies collect, using complex algorithms and machine learning to create customized files for individuals, according to the state’s tenders. The files update automatically as the software sorts the data.

However, a variety of challenges can complicate implementation. Red tape and even expense can create a fragmented and disjointed nationwide network, three AI and surveillance experts told Reuters.

Reuters found announcements of successful bids for more than half of the 50 procurement documents analyzed, ranging in value from a few million yuan to nearly 200 million yuan.

system improvement

SenseTime co-founder Xu Chiheng demonstrates his company's surveillance software on a laptop at SenseTime's office in Beijing, China, 11 October 2017.
SenseTime co-founder Xu Chiheng demonstrates his company’s surveillance software on a laptop at SenseTime’s office in Beijing, China, 11 October 2017.

China blanketed its cities in what it described as “sharp eyes” surveillance cameras in a 2015-2020 campaign, and is aiming to do the same in rural areas. The development and introduction of the One Person, One File software began around the same time.

Ohlberg, the researcher, said the earliest mention of a person’s file she saw was in 2016 in a 200-page surveillance feasibility study by Shawan County in Xinjiang about developing a computer system acquisition that “could automatically identify and investigate key individuals involved in terrorism and (threatening social) stability.” A Shawan County official declined to comment.

In 2016, then-Chinese State Security Chief Meng Jianzhu wrote in a state-run magazine that big data is key to spotting crime patterns and trends. Two years later, the system was mentioned in a speech by Li Ziqing, then director of the Biometrics and Security Technology Research Center of the State Chinese Academy of Sciences, to industry executives. Li was also a chief scientist at AuthenMetric, a Beijing-based facial recognition company. Neither the research center nor AuthenMetric responded to requests for comment.

“The ultimate core technology of big data security (applied to) is a person, a file,” Li said in the 2018 speech at an AI forum in Shenzhen, according to a transcript of the speech released by local media and shared on WeChat by AuthenMetric was shared public account.

The party’s political and legal affairs commission, which Meng chaired in 2016, declined to comment. Meng could not be reached for comment. Li did not respond to a request for comment.

The industry developed quickly. By 2021, Huawei, Sensetime and 26 other Chinese tech companies had filed patent applications for file archiving and image clustering algorithms with the World Intellectual Property Organization.

A 2021 Huawei patent application for a “Method and Apparatus for Partitioning People Databases,” which mentioned one person, says a file, “As smart cameras become more popular in the future, the number of captured ones will increase.” Face images in a city increase to trillions per year”.

Safe Cities

SenseTime surveillance software, which identifies details about people and vehicles, is demonstrated on October 11, 2017 at the company's office in Beijing, China.
SenseTime surveillance software, which identifies details about people and vehicles, is demonstrated on October 11, 2017 at the company’s office in Beijing, China.

The 50 alerts analyzed by Reuters give varying details on how the software would be used.

Some cited “one person, one file” as a single item on a list of what surveillance systems need. Others gave detailed descriptions.

Nine of the bids indicated that the software would be used with facial recognition technology, which could use the documents provided to determine whether a passer-by was Uyghur, connect to early warning systems for police, and create archives of Uyghur faces.

For example, a February 2020 tender issued by a party organ covering an area in the island’s southeastern province of Hainan called for a database of Uyghur and Tibetan residents to “facilitate finding information on persons involved in terrorism.”

Hainan authorities did not respond to a request for comment.

More than a dozen alerts mention the need to fight terrorism and “maintain stability,” a catchphrase human rights activists say is often used to quell dissent.

At least four of the bidders indicated that the software should be able to retrieve information from the person’s social media accounts. Half of the bidders indicated that the software would be used to collect and analyze personal information such as relatives, social circles, vehicle details, marital status and shopping habits. China is using AI software to improve its surveillance capabilities


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