Dozens of Chinese companies have built software that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to sort data collected on residents, amid high demand from authorities seeking to upgrade their surveillance tools, a review of government documents shows.
According to more than 50 publicly available documents, dozens of entities in China have over the past four years bought such software, known as “One person, one file”.
The technology improves on existing software, which simply collects data but leaves it to people to organise.
“The system has the ability to learn independently and can optimise the accuracy of file creation as the amount of data increases,” according to a tender published in July by the Public Security Department of Henan province.
“(Faces that are) partially blocked, masked, or wearing glasses, and low-resolution portraits can also be archived relatively accurately,” it added. Henan’s Public Security Department did not respond to requests for comment about the system and its uses.
The new software improves on Beijing’s current approach to surveillance. Although China’s existing systems can collect data on individuals, law enforcement and other users have been left to organise it.
Another limitation of surveillance software is its inability to connect an individual’s personal details to a real-time location except at security checkpoints such airports, said Jeffrey Ding, a fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
Security Upgrade to ‘Maintain Stability’
“One person, one file “is a way of sorting information that makes it easier to track individuals,” Mareike Ohlberg, a Berlin-based senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said.
China’s Department of Public Security, which oversees regional police authorities, did not respond to a request for comment about one person, one file and its surveillance uses.
Besides the police units, 10 bids were opened by Chinese Communist Party bodies responsible for political and legal affairs. China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission declined to comment.
The tenders examined by Reuters represent a fraction of such efforts by Chinese police units and Party bodies to upgrade surveillance networks by tapping into the power of big data and AI, according to three industry experts interviewed for this story.
According to government documents, some of the software’s users, such as schools, wanted to monitor unfamiliar faces outside their compounds.
The majority, such as police units in southwestern Sichuan province’s Ngawa prefecture, mainly populated by Tibetans, ordered it for more explicit security purposes.
The Ngawa tender describes the software as being for “maintaining political security, social stability and peace among the people”. Ngawa’s department of public security did not respond to requests for comment.
Beijing says its monitoring is crucial to combating crime and has been key to its efforts to fight the spread of Covid-19.
Activists such as Human Rights Watch say that the country is building a surveillance state that infringes on privacy and unfairly targets certain groups, such the Uyghur Muslim minority.
Local authorities across the country, including in highly populated 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 bidding in 2021.
Documents show that 22 tech companies, including Sensetime, Huawei, Megvii, Cloudwalk, Dahua and the cloud division of Baidu, now offer such AI-enhanced software.