Totalitarian China Intensifies Biometrics & Video Surveillance

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According to a Georgetown University meta-study, China is leading the way in publishing research on visual surveillance of populations, one of the most controversial areas of biometrics.

Coincidentally, the specialists report on the direct sale of visual surveillance systems to reactionary sections of the Iranian government by one of China’s most successful system manufacturers.

According to a report published by Research and Markets, visual surveillance is only a small part of the global market for biometrics-based social credit infrastructure, which is expected to reach $16.1 billion in three years.

The report claims that artificial intelligence will enable “near-flawless identification and tracking” of people and objects within that timeframe.

If, as is generally the case, research levels correlate with technology and product development, China has a global advantage in visual surveillance markets.

According to Georgetown’s research, China has about as many totalitarian technologies as the United States, India, Australia, Italy, Canada, Singapore, Germany, France and South Korea combined. And while China’s share of relevant research reports increased from 2015 to 2019, the US-dominated group remained constant.

The Georgetown analysis is English-language meta-research, i.e. a study of studies that draws conclusions from trends in publications on a particular topic. In this case, two analysts from the university’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology focused specifically on visual surveillance.

They looked at papers published between 2015 and 2019 (and often compared data from each of those years in isolation).

Taking a step back, they find that visual surveillance accounts for only six per cent of global computer vision research. This may be because there are few governments compared to the myriad commercial buyers and developers.

Within this microcosm, however, Chinese researchers produced one-third of the visual surveillance work (as well as one-third of the total computer vision pie) during the period studied.

And they dominate in research on biometric re-identification, crowd counting and facial spoofing detection – three areas at the core of modern population surveillance.

The market report projects that cameras and other optical devices will account for $723 million in social credit revenue by 2026. But who are the potential buyers of social credit infrastructure?

Chinese sales of optical surveillance systems in Iran are a case in point. Both countries are ruled by rigid autocracies that survive in large part by personally monitoring every individual within their borders.

According to IPVM, China-based Tiandy sells systems to, among others, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Sepâh), which is subordinate to the Iranian government.

The Revolutionary Guard’s sole mandate is to protect Iran’s political system, and some observers believe it could be more powerful than the religious zealots it was created to protect. The Revolutionary Guard has been the subject of US sanctions for more than a decade.

Tiandy, with annual revenues of $688 million in 2020, as reported by security publisher a&s, has reportedly been involved in several projects in Iran. Tiandy may be the only major Chinese manufacturer of visual surveillance products with a physical presence in Iran that sells to the government.

According to IPVM, the company signed a five-year partnership agreement with an Iranian distributor in November to sell visual surveillance systems.

Its reporters have previously written that Tiandy sells biometric systems used for “tracking Uighurs and assessing minorities”. The Uighurs are an ethnic and religious minority in China feared and persecuted by Beijing.

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