Facial recognition ‘security measures’ grow on campuses

The use of facial recognition software is growing in China’s universities, ostensibly to improve security, but concerns are growing that it is used for monitoring students – including foreign students – and teachers, creating massive databases on student attendance and movements around campus.

Peking University in Beijing now screens students entering the university’s south-western gate by using a camera to scan their faces in a trial that began at the end of June to see if the technology can replace the use of university identity cards. The system scans through a database of thousands of photographs taken for student and staff identity cards, using a powerful system to match the photograph against a database of thousands of others.

Facial recognition devices have already been installed outside the university’s libraries, classrooms, student accommodation, sports facilities and computer centres, but these match a face to an existing photograph of that person on the database rather than sifting through the entire database.

Photographs can be retaken in the guard room at the gates if the photos do not quite match, according to the university’s social media account on Sina Weibo, though it does not say what the failure rate is – in particular for foreign students. Facial recognition technologies are notorious for being unable to recognise some ethnicities, including black people, and China does not have a large database of non-Chinese ethnicities, apart from the Turkic Uighur population in Xinjiang province where it conducts mass surveillance.

China already has an extensive database on its 11 million Muslim Uighur population in the western region of Xinjiang using photographs as well as videos of members of the Turkic population with different facial expressions, in addition to DNA, iris scans and blood tests to monitor the population.

“It is not entirely clear what happens to all of that data and some of the agencies that are doing the actual hoovering up of data are not saying what they are doing with this data, what they are looking for,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

It is likely she said, with reference to the connection between stepped up surveillance and a security crackdown such as is currently being experienced in Xinjiang, that “campuses are of particular interest given that they are seen as ‘hotbeds of radicalism’”.

She noted that the state has an obligation to provide public security, “so if it is not just about greater surveillance, it can be defensible, but I’m not sure that there is a legitimate, credible public security threat that warrants that kind of response on a university campus,” she said, noting crime on campuses in China is very low.

Tsinghua University in Beijing has gone further by using facial recognition for all visitors, who must first register via China’s WeChat messaging platform which scans the registering person’s face using an app on their mobile phone, and asking for national identity card details. Those who do not provide details in advance may not be permitted to enter the grounds.

“It is one more way to erase anonymity and people’s ability to do anything beyond the authorities’ line of sight,” Richardson said.

The University of Science and Technology Beijing also uses facial recognition, while Beijing Normal University combines facial recognition and voice recognition technology to improve accuracy, according to the official China Daily newspaper.

Spotting ‘ghostwriters’

But campus facial recognition is currently still restricted to specific uses such as to spot ‘ghost writers’ trying to sit exams for other students.

China’s official Global Times reported that facial scanning equipment had been installed in about a quarter of the 38,000 college entrance exam sites in Jiangsu province ahead of the June exam known as the gaokao, cross-referencing the scanned image with the student’s identity card image and photograph filed with the student’s gaokao application.

It was also used in June at one secondary school to verify gaokao candidates’ identities with the Shenzhen testing authority saying it intended to expand the use of such technology in the coming year.

Academics in Shenzhen speaking on condition of anonymity told University World News that this was unlikely to be widespread even in Shenzhen, which has around 47,000 students sitting the gaokao each year. Reports that it is being more widely used is probably intended to deter such fraud rather than catch it, they said.

At the Communication University of China in Beijing one of its professors, Shen Hao, uses facial recognition software installed on his tablet to take photos of some 300 students attending his six courses and matches them with the university’s database in order to ensure the students are not using others to sign in for them.

“The traditional way of tracking attendance is through a roll call. The new facial recognition system saves time and reduces the workload of teachers,” Shen was quoted by China Daily as saying, pointing to a 100% attendance rate as a sign of its success.

Upgrading campus security

More worrying is that the government is promoting the use of sophisticated surveillance on campuses.

The State Council in Beijing published measures in April 2017 on campus safety saying institutions must have adequate security personnel, CCTV systems and alarms in place. In April this year the Ministry of Education issued a more detailed plan for universities’ security systems, which must by 2020 match new generation artificial intelligence development.

Analysts suggest university campuses are being used as a laboratory to develop improved facial recognition for wider purposes. China is building what it says will be the world’s most powerful facial recognition system to identify any of its 1.3 billion citizens “within three seconds”, by connecting up a network of surveillance cameras, data storage and processing centres across the country in a system that the country’s National Development and Reform Commission says will be “omnipresent, completely connected, always on and fully controllable”.

However, a facial recognition algorithm developed by Tsinghua University researchers provided disappointing results in tests conducted last year with accuracy below 60%, according to a paper published in the domestic Journal of Electronic Science and Technology this May by Fan Ying, a researcher at the Ministry of Public Security’s population management research centre in Beijing.

Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the European School of Culture and Theology, Germany, who has also looked at the massive step-up in surveillance in China’s Xinjiang province, questions the extent to which the data can be meaningfully analysed. “Technology cannot replace manpower in many ways,” he says.

But he added: “The technology is enabling the state to do a lot more automated data collection.”

Moves are being made to improve accuracy, including for identifying non-Chinese individuals.

Recently a Guangzhou based start-up company signed an agreement with the Zimbabwe government for a mass facial recognition project in that African country, the official Global Times reported in April, that would include assistance to Zimbabwe to build a national facial database. This would give the Chinese company access to a huge database on a non-Chinese population to improve recognition for non-Chinese faces.