Like Africa being used as a testing ground for pharmaceuticals, US companies are using totalitarian regimes for testing high-tech gadgetry, and blocking software. As we’ve seen with the pharma industry, the tests become applications in North America.
In Guangzhou, an hour and a half by train from Shenzhen, Yao Ruoguang is preparing for a major test of his own. “It’s called the 10-million-faces test,” he tells me.
Yao is managing director of Pixel Solutions, a Chinese company that specializes in producing the new high-tech national ID cards, as well as selling facial-recognition software to businesses and government agencies. The test, the first phase of which is only weeks away, is being staged by the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing. The idea is to measure the effectiveness of face-recognition software in identifying police suspects. Participants will be given a series of photos, taken in a variety of situations. Their task will be to match the images to other photos of the same people in the government’s massive database. Several biometrics companies, including Yao’s, have been invited to compete. “We have to be able to match a face in a 10 million database in one second,” Yao tells me. “We are preparing for that now.”
The companies that score well will be first in line for lucrative government contracts to integrate face-recognition software into Golden Shield, using it to check for ID fraud and to discover the identities of suspects caught on surveillance cameras. Yao says the technology is almost there: “It will happen next year.”
When I meet Yao at his corporate headquarters, he is feeling confident about how his company will perform in the test. His secret weapon is that he will be using facial-recognition software purchased from L-1 Identity Solutions, a major U.S. defense contractor that produces passports and biometric security systems for the U.S. government.
To show how well it works, Yao demonstrates on himself. Using a camera attached to his laptop, he snaps a picture of his own face, round and boyish for its 54 years. Then he uploads it onto the company’s proprietary Website, built with L-1 software. With the cursor, he marks his own eyes with two green plus signs, helping the system to measure the distance between his features, a distinctive aspect of our faces that does not change with disguises or even surgery. The first step is to “capture the image,” Yao explains. Next is “finding the face.”
He presses APPLY, telling the program to match the new face with photos of the same person in the company’s database of 600,000 faces. Instantly, multiple photos of Yao appear, including one taken 19 years earlier — proof that the technology can “find a face” even when the face has changed significantly with time. ”
It took 1.1 milliseconds!” Yao exclaims. “Yeah, that’s me!”
The crackdown in Tibet has set off a wave of righteous rallies and boycott calls. But it sidesteps the uncomfortable fact that much of China’s powerful surveillance state is already being built with U.S. and European technology. In February 2006, a congressional subcommittee held a hearing on “The Internet in China: A Tool for Freedom or Suppression?” Called on the carpet were Google (for building a special Chinese search engine that blocked sensitive material), Cisco (for supplying hardware for China’s Great Firewall), Microsoft (for taking down political blogs at the behest of Beijing) and Yahoo (for complying with requests to hand over e-mail-account information that led to the arrest and imprisonment of a high-profile Chinese journalist, as well as a dissident who had criticized corrupt officials in online discussion groups). The issue came up again during the recent Tibet uproar when it was discovered that both MSN and Yahoo had briefly put up the mug shots of the “most wanted” Tibetan protesters on their Chinese news portals.
In all of these cases, U.S. multinationals have offered the same defense: Cooperating with draconian demands to turn in customers and censor material is, unfortunately, the price of doing business in China. Some, like Google, have argued that despite having to limit access to the Internet, they are contributing to an overall increase of freedom in China. It’s a story that glosses over the much larger scandal of what is actually taking place: Western investors stampeding into the country, possibly in violation of the law, with the sole purpose of helping the Communist Party spend billions of dollars building Police State 2.0. This isn’t an unfortunate cost of doing business in China: It’s the goal of doing business in China. “Come help us spy!” the Chinese government has said to the world. And the world’s leading technology companies are eagerly answering the call.
As The New York Times recently reported, aiding and abetting Beijing has become an investment boom for U.S. companies. Honeywell is working with Chinese police to “set up an elaborate computer monitoring system to analyze feeds from indoor and outdoor cameras in one of Beijing’s most populated districts.” General Electric is providing Beijing police with a security system that controls “thousands of video cameras simultaneously, and automatically alerts them to suspicious or fast-moving objects, like people running.” IBM, meanwhile, is installing its “Smart Surveillance System” in the capital, another system for linking video cameras and scanning for trouble, while United Technologies is in Guangzhou, helping to customize a “2,000-camera network in a single large neighborhood, the first step toward a citywide network of 250,000 cameras to be installed before the Asian Games in 2010.” By next year, the Chinese internal-security market will be worth an estimated $33 billion — around the same amount Congress has allocated for reconstructing Iraq.
“We’re at the start of a massive boom in Chinese security spending,” according to Graham Summers, a market analyst who publishes an investor newsletter in Baltimore. “And just as we need to be aware of how to profit from the growth in China’s commodity consumption, we need to be aware of companies that will profit from ‘security consumption.’ . . . There’s big money to be made.”
While U.S. companies are eager to break into China’s rapidly expanding market, every Chinese security firm I come across in the Pearl River Delta is hatching some kind of plan to break into the U.S. market. No one, however, is quite as eager as Aebell Electrical Technology, one of China’s top 10 security companies. Aebell has a contract to help secure the Olympic swimming stadium in Beijing and has installed more than 10,000 cameras in and around Guangzhou. Business has been growing by 100 percent a year. When I meet the company’s fidgety general manager, Zheng Sun Man, the first thing he tells me is “We are going public at the end of this year. On the Nasdaq.” It also becomes clear why he has chosen to speak with a foreign reporter: “Help, help, help!” he begs me. “Help us promote our products!”
Zheng, an MBA from one of China’s top schools, proudly shows me the business card of the New York investment bank that is handling Aebell’s IPO, as well as a newly printed English-language brochure showing off the company’s security cameras. Its pages are filled with American iconography, including businessmen exchanging wads of dollar bills and several photos of the New York skyline that prominently feature the World Trade Center. In the hall at company headquarters is a poster of two interlocking hearts: one depicting the American flag, the other the Aebell logo.
I ask Zheng whether China’s surveillance boom has anything to do with the rise in strikes and demonstrations in recent years. Zheng’s deputy, a 23-year veteran of the Chinese military wearing a black Mao suit, responds as if I had launched a direct attack on the Communist Party itself. “If you walk out of this building, you will be under surveillance in five to six different ways,” he says, staring at me hard. He lets the implication of his words linger in the air like an unspoken threat. “If you are a law-abiding citizen, you shouldn’t be afraid,” he finally adds. “The criminals are the only ones who should be afraid.”
Up in my room, the Website that pops up on my laptop looks like every other Net portal at a hotel — only it won’t let me access human-rights and labor Websites that I know are working fine. The TV gets CNN International — only with strange edits and obviously censored blackouts. My cellphone picks up a strong signal for the China Mobile network. A few months earlier, in Davos, Switzerland, the CEO of China Mobile bragged to a crowd of communications executives that “we not only know who you are, we also know where you are.” Asked about customer privacy, he replied that his company only gives “this kind of data to government authorities” — pretty much the same answer I got from the clerk at the front desk.
When I leave China, I feel a powerful relief: I have escaped. I am home safe. But the feeling starts to fade as soon as I get to the customs line at JFK, watching hundreds of visitors line up to have their pictures taken and fingers scanned. In the terminal, someone hands me a brochure for “Fly Clear.” All I need to do is have my fingerprints and irises scanned, and I can get a Clear card with a biometric chip that will let me sail through security. Later, I look it up: The company providing the technology is L-1.