Flawed biometric schemes in Asia highlight mass surveillance risks


Developing more complex and invasive methods of mass surveillance seems to be a constant goal of governments around the world as they pursue ever-increasing control over their citizens’ lives. While much has been revealed about Western governments’ communications monitoring programs in recent years, however, new developments in China and India offer insights into the potential dangers posed by mass-scale biometric surveillance.

As the Washington Post reports this week, China is pursuing “an ambitious plan, known as ‘Xue Liang,’ which can be translated as ‘Sharp Eyes,’” which aims “to connect the security cameras that already scan roads, shopping malls and transport hubs with private cameras on compounds and buildings, and integrate them into one nationwide surveillance and data-sharing platform.” The program will also reportedly incorporate facial recognition — “the new hot tech topic in China” — where it is being embraced for use not only at places like airports and ATMs, but hotels and public restrooms as well.

“In this effort, the Chinese government is working hand-in-glove with the country’s tech industry, from established giants to plucky start-ups staffed by graduates from top American universities and former employees of companies like Google and Microsoft, who seem cheerfully oblivious to concerns they might be empowering a modern surveillance state,” the Post‘s Simon Denyer reports.

“China is not alone in experimenting with these new technologies,” Denyer notes. “The FBI’s Next Generation Identification System uses facial recognition to compare images from crime scenes with a national database of mug shots. Police forces across the United States have been using algorithm-based techniques for several years to predict where crimes are likely to occur.” Biometric surveillance in the United States is also increasingly beginning to include technologies such as iris recognition.

“Yet it is China’s ambition that sets it apart,” Denyer writes. “Western law enforcement agencies tend to use facial recognition to identify criminal suspects, not to track social activists and dissidents, or to monitor entire ethnic groups. China seeks to achieve several interlocking goals: to dominate the global artificial-intelligence industry, to apply big data to tighten its grip on every aspect of society, and to maintain surveillance of its population more effectively than ever before.”

The immense size of China’s population also comes with some added advantages for government surveillance enthusiasts. In the U.S., algorithmic bias has presented an ongoing problem for companies working on technologies like face recognition. In China, however, “tech companies claim many times greater accuracy rates than, for instance, the FBI, and probably justifiably so, experts say: after all, they have been able to draw on a huge pool of photos from government records to improve their algorithms, without any pesky concerns about privacy,” Denyer notes. Yet there are also downsides.

“There will be false positives for the foreseeable future,” Jim Dempsey, executive director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Law and Technology, reportedly told the Post. In the realm of facial recognition and other biometric identifiers, “false positives” could conceivably translate to serious social ills, such as wrongful convictions.

Ominous developments that forecast potentially frightening impacts for other countries that continue to embrace ever-more comprehensive and centralized surveillance databases, meanwhile, have recently emerged in India as well in relation to that country’s so-called “Aadhaar” system — the world’s largest biometric database.

Created in 2009 and administered by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the mandatory Aadhaar system has since enrolled the vast majority of Indians — over a billion people — into its database which links biometric identifiers like fingerprint and iris scans, along with basic information that’s typically found on older IDs, such as an address, to a unique twelve-digit number.

Recent revelations that anyone who knew a person’s Aadhaar number could buy much of that person’s additional information for the equivalent of less than ten dollars, however, and get a fake ID for that person printed out for a few dollars more, raise major questions about data security and privacy issues in the Aadhaar system. “The UIDAI says the breach seems to be a misuse of a grievance redressal scheme that allowed Aadhaar agents to rectify issues like a change in address and wrong spelling of a person’s name,” the BBC reports. “However, it added that the scheme did not grant access to people’s biometric details.”

In the wake of the Aadhaar revelations, American whistleblower Edward Snowden, who exposed much of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance apparatus in 2013, posted a message on Twitter criticizing authorities in India, some of whom apparently have attempted to retaliate against a reporter that exposed details of the scandal. “The journalists exposing the #Aadhaar breach deserve an award, not an investigation,” Snowden wrote. “If the government were truly concerned for justice, they would be reforming the policies that destroyed the privacy of a billion Indians. Want to arrest those responsible? They are called @UIDAI.”

Snowden knows better than almost anyone, of course, that Western governments are also responsible for a wide range of surveillance abuses. Yet the latest revelations about mass surveillance in Asia causing more problems for those societies than it’s worth should not be overlooked, as they offer important lessons for other governments around the world.



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