What will the police of 50 years look like? It has been an interesting topic bandied about in books, TV and in movies. From films like Robocop to Minority Report to Sylvester Stallone staples Judge Dredd and Demolition Man we have been given a glimpse about what that will look like. Could the year 3000 look like Futurama or others like Almost Human or Future Cop? Give you a lot to think about but part of that reality could be here already in China.

You can’t hide in a crowd

In China police in the city of Zhengzhou (Population 6.4 million) have been issued with sunglasses that are equipped with facial recognition software. The glasses are connected to a government database and the officers are then able to scan a crowd and see if any matches are made. The officers take a picture of a crowd and the faces in the crowd are compared to the database and if a match is found that person’s information is sent to the officer.

So far the technology has been trialed only at the local train station and and seven people who were wanted have been taken into custody. This technology also has an aid. China is building the world’s largest domestic surveillance network and already have over 170 million CC TVs already in place with 400 million more coming. These cameras are already using artificial intelligence to operate and incorporating facial recognition into that will seemingly be an easy next step. Some are capable of estimating a person’s height, gender, age or even ethnic background.

Not everyone is happy about this. China is a one party state but not everyone is enamored with the Communist Party (the Gòngchǎndǎng). They are also not a homogenous culture, either ethnically or religiously and there is a great fear that the government will use this technology track political opponents or minorities and those fears are not unfounded. Little will go unobserved by the Gòngchǎndǎng or even the local police who are CCP loyalists. The facilities used to monitor these systems even look straight out of Orwell. Typically one week’s worth of information will be stored and the police claim it will only be used when help is requested, either by the police or a civilian.

There are some benefits

There is of course some benefit. A BBC correspondent had his picture entered into the system and was released into the city. He was apprehended by the police in 7 minutes thanks to the cameras. The cameras have the potential to end an abduction or apprehend a criminal in minutes rather than hours or days as well as preventing them from fleeing the jurisdiction since they are also capable of scanning license plates. The saying is if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. Their aim is to not only prevent crime but to predict it as well.

Camera surveillance is not just Chinese. Large CCTV systems have popped up in nearly every major metropolitan area from London to Chicago to Tokyo to New York. These systems are even used here in York but with much less coverage. Most people are fine with this and the benefits of reducing crime make it worth the small invasion of privacy but no one is OK with the government using it to spy on its own citizens, even many Chinese citizens are not happy with their own government doing this.

It is doubtful that these surveillance systems will go away and with artificial intelligence running working hand-in-hand with them they will only get more extensive. Are they worth it? If used properly and without abuse they have the ability to prevent or solve crimes quicker. This is the future and it is now. Tom Cruise is not needed.

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