China’s police have a new weapon in their surveillance arsenal: sunglasses with built-in facial recognition. According to reports from local media, the glasses are being tested at train stations in the “emerging megacity” of Zhengzhou, where they’ll be used to scan travelers during the upcoming Lunar New Year migration. This is a period of extremely busy holiday travel, often described as the largest human migration event on Earth, and police say the sunglasses have already been used to capture seven suspects wanted in major cases, as well as 26 individuals traveling under false identities.
The sunglasses are the latest component in China’s burgeoning tech-surveillance state. In recent years, the country has poured resources into various advanced tracking technologies, developing artificial intelligence to identify individuals and digitally tail them around cities. One estimate suggests the country will have more than 600 million CCTV cameras by 2020, with Chinese tech startups outfitting them with advanced features like gait recognition.
According to a report from The Wall Street Journal, the sunglasses being deployed in Zhengzhou are built by Beijing-based LLVision Technology Co. The company’s chief executive Wu Fei told the publication that LLVision worked with local police to develop the technology to suit their needs.
One challenge for facial recognition software is that it struggles when running on CCTV cameras, because the picture is blurry and by the time a target is identified they might already have moved on. The sunglasses, by comparison, given police “the ability to check anywhere,” says Wu. “By making wearable glasses, with AI on the front end, you get instant and accurate feedback. You can decide right away what the next interaction is going to be.”
The sunglasses are controlled by a connected mobile unit and sell for 3,999 yuan, or $636 (though the facial recognition support costs extra). LLVision says they’re able to recognize individuals from a pre-loaded database of 10,000 suspects in just 100 milliseconds, but cautions that accuracy levels in real-life usage may vary due “environmental noise.”
But the flexibility of a device like this is worrying for privacy advocates, who say that new surveillance technology is being deployed without adequate oversight, offering considerable new powers to governments. This is especially true in China, where law enforcement can track and surveil citizens with complete freedom. William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, told WSJ: “The potential to give individual police officers facial-recognition technology in sunglasses could eventually make China’s surveillance state all the more ubiquitous.”