China, a surveillance state where authorities have unchecked access to citizens’ histories, is seeking to look into their future with technology designed to predict and prevent crime.
Companies are helping police develop artificial intelligence they say will help them identify and apprehend suspects before criminal acts are committed.
“If we use our smart systems and smart facilities well, we can know beforehand . . . who might be a terrorist, who might do something bad,” Li Meng, vice-minister of science and technology, said on Friday.
Facial recognition company Cloud Walk has been trialling a system that uses data on individuals’ movements and behaviour — for instance visits to shops where weapons are sold — to assess their chances of committing a crime. Its software warns police when a citizen’s crime risk becomes dangerously high, allowing the police to intervene.
“The police are using a big-data rating system to rate highly suspicious groups of people based on where they go and what they do,” a company spokesperson told the Financial Times.
Risks rise if the individual “frequently visits transport hubs and goes to suspicious places like a knife store”, the spokesperson added.
China’s authoritarian government has always amassed personal data to monitor and control its citizens — whether they are criminals or suspected of politically sensitive activity. But new technology, from phones and computers to fast-developing AI software, is amplifying its capabilities.
These are being used to crack down on even the most minor of infractions — facial recognition cameras, for instance, are also being used to identify and shame jaywalkers, according to state media.
Mr Li said crime prediction would become an important use for AI technology in the government sphere.
China’s crime-prediction technology relies on several AI techniques, including facial recognition and gait analysis, to identify people from surveillance footage.
In addition, “crowd analysis” can be used to detect “suspicious” patterns of behaviour in crowds, for example to single out thieves from normal passengers at a train stations.
As well as tracking people with a criminal history, Cloud Walk’s technology is being used to monitor “high-risk” places such as hardware stores.
“Of course, if someone buys a kitchen knife that’s OK, but if the person also buys a sack and a hammer later, that person is becoming suspicious,” said the Cloud Walk spokesman.
Another example of AI use in Chinese crime prediction is “personal re-identification” — matching someone’s identity even if spotted in different places wearing different clothes, a relatively recent technological achievement.
“We can use re-ID to find people who look suspicious by walking back and forth in the same area, or who are wearing masks,” said Leng Biao, professor of bodily recognition at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “With re-ID, it’s also possible to reassemble someone’s trail across a large area.”
However, the nascent technology raises questions about the potential for miscarriages of justice — particularly in a country that legal experts say lacks the necessary checks and balances in its judicial system.
Although Chinese law does not allow charges to be brought against someone for a crime they have yet to commit, suspects can be charged with attempting to commit crimes.
“In practice if there is no evidence the suspect could still be charged,” said Li Xiaolin, a partner at Beijing Weiheng Law Firm. “In China wrongful verdicts with no evidence are very hard to reverse on appeal, because of the judicial system.”
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