Hong Kong Police Possess Australian Facial Recognition Software

Hong kong protesters wearing masks.

Hong Kong has banned people from wearing masks while protesting. (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

Many people have suggested that the Hong Kong police might be using facial recognition software to keep the protests in check. A new report by Bloomberg seems to lend credence to the idea as it was revealed that the city’s police department is already in possession of such a system.

Policing with AI

For the past three years, the Hong Kong police are said to be using facial recognition technology developed by an Australian company called iOmniscient. Engineers from the company have also provided training to dozens of officers on how to use it. The system is able to analyze footage from CCTV cameras, matching plates and faces to a police database and picking out suspects in a crowd.

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It is unclear whether the department has actually used the system on protestors. Hong Kong’s privacy laws state that “members of the public must be informed if they’re subject to surveillance. If authorities are matching faces or names to identity markers, that would fall under the privacy ordinance… However, police can claim an exemption if the data is being used to detect or prevent crime,” according to Bloomberg.

As such, the Hong Kong administration may have been using the facial recognition system against the demonstrators under the pretense of stopping a potential crime. In some rallies, protestors had destroyed CCTV cameras on lampposts as they wanted to avoid possible identification and arrest. The system was apparently developed to find missing children. The company has also sold traffic management tools to Hong Kong police about five to six years back.

The Chief Executive of iOmniscient, Rustom Kang, denied that his company was responsible for the oppression of Hongkongers, as it had supplied the facial recognition system. He used the analogy of selling a cake knife to a customer who uses it to kill someone to keep his company out of controversy. However, Kang admitted that the business might have a maintenance contract with the police, giving them annual updates as well.  

Earlier, the protestors used to wear face masks when participating in demonstrations. The administration soon implemented a law that made wearing them illegal during protests. However, people have defied the ban on multiple occasions. Almost 90 people have been arrested for violating the anti-mask law.

The Beijing metro will soon have a facial recognition system.
The Beijing metro will soon have a facial recognition system. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons)

Facial recognition on the Beijing metro

China will soon be implementing facial recognition technologies at Beijing metro stations. “The technique aims to improve the efficiency of security checks and includes both body checks and luggage screening when large numbers of passengers enter the station,” Zhan Minghui, director of the Beijing Rail Traffic Control Center, said in a statement (Hong Kong Free Press).

New cameras will scan the faces of passengers as they enter a station and direct them into various security channels according to a “passenger credit system.” People who are in the system’s “white list” will be able to enjoy speedy security clearance. Those who have “abnormal feedback” from the scan will be required to go through extra security checks.

Beijing metro currently handles about 12 million trips every working day. By 2022, this number is expected to jump to 17 million. It isn’t clear when exactly the new facial recognition system will be implemented. The factors that could trigger “abnormal feedback” is also being kept a mystery.

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