“Our machines can very easily recognise you among at least 2 billion people in a matter of seconds,” says chief executive and Yitu co-founder Zhu Long, “which would have been unbelievable just three years ago.” Yitu’s Dragonfly Eye generic portrait platform already has 1.8 billion photographs to work with: those logged in the national database and you, if you have visited China recently. Yitu will not say whether Hong Kong identity card holders have been logged in the government’s database, for which the company provides navigation software and algorithms, but 320 million of the photos have come from China’s borders, including ports and airports, where pictures are taken of everyone who enters and leaves the country.
According to Yitu, its platform is also in service with more than 20 provincial public security departments, and is used as part of more than 150 municipal public security systems across the country, and Dragonfly Eye has already proved its worth. On its very first day of operation on the Shanghai Metro, in January, the system identified a wanted man when he entered a station. After matching his face against the database, Dragonfly Eye sent his photo to a policeman, who made an arrest. In the following three months, 567 suspected lawbreakers were caught on the city’s underground network.
“Chinese authorities are collecting and centralising ever more information about hundreds of millions of ordinary people, identifying persons who deviate from what they determine to be ‘normal thought’ and then surveilling them,” says Sophie Richardson, China director at HRW. The activist calls on Beijing to cease the collection of big data “until China has meaningful privacy rights and an accountable police force”.