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Meet The Companies Behind Facial Recognition Technology


Facial recognition technology is becoming more common here in the U.S. as anyone who uses Facebook or an iPhone 10 knows. But it's far more widespread in China. We take a look in this week's All Tech Considered.


KELLY: In China, facial recognition technology is used for lots of things from ride hailing and shopping to surveillance. NPR's Rob Schmitz takes us on a tour of the Chinese companies developing this technology.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: When I take out my microphone at the Beijing headquarters of SenseTime, China's largest artificial intelligence company, employee Katherine Xue looks nervous.

KATHERINE XUE: I'm a little scared (laughter).

SCHMITZ: You're scared? You have cameras all over this room, and you're scared of the microphone (laughter).

XUE: A little bit.

SCHMITZ: Actually, I'm a little scared, too. Dozens of cameras are pointed at me. On a big screen in SenseTime's showroom, my face is covered with lines that detect my age, identity and my attractiveness score.

It gave me a 98 on my attractiveness.

XUE: Yes.

SCHMITZ: And is that a high score, or is that a low score?

XUE: It's a very high score.

SCHMITZ: It's a very high score.

A moment later Katherine, who scored a 99 and didn't feign surprise at all, whispers that everyone receives a high attractiveness score. This is a marketing gimmick that flatters you so you'll buy merchandise based on data gleaned from your face. In my case, the machine determined that I'd likely buy a cheap brand of Chinese grain alcohol. Thanks, machine. This is just one way SenseTime uses facial recognition technology. The other starts with a camera pointed at a street.

What are we looking at here?

QIAN CHEN: Real-time video surveillance system. Actually...

SCHMITZ: SenseTime AI researcher Qian Chen shows me video of the street below. Each car and person is surrounded by a square that displays information like a car's model and license plate and a person's gender and clothing. Qian says if their data is in the system, it could figure out who they are. SenseTime's June Jin says the company sells these applications to Chinese police.

JUNE JIN: We have been working with about, you know, 40 public security bureaus, and they've been working on this, leveling up the city's security level.

SCHMITZ: State surveillance makes up a third of SenseTime's $3 billion business, says Jin. Megvii, China's second-largest AI company, serves the government, too. Vice President Xie Yinan...

XIE YINAN: (Through interpreter) The government is pushing the need for this technology from the top so companies don't have big obstacles in making it happen. In America, people are too busy discussing how they should use it.

SCHMITZ: China's government has laid out goals to build an artificial intelligence industry worth nearly $150 billion by 2030, much of it to enhance domestic security. When I question how Chinese police will use Megvii's technology, Xie says there are limitations.

XIE: (Through interpreter) We just provide the government the technology, and they do their job with it. Cameras are set in China at 2.8 meters above the ground. That means they won't be able to capture human faces. That's a rule. Chinese citizens know that, so they don't think about it too much.

SCHMITZ: Ji Feng thinks about it all the time. He's a poet and an activist who police escort out of Beijing each year on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and on World Human Rights Day. Ji says after a fellow activist visited his home recently, police used facial recognition cameras to identify him, inform his landlord, who then threatened to kick him out of his apartment.

JI FENG: (Through interpreter) The government's using this technology to catch people who are considered threats to social stability. Are they using it to catch thieves? Yes, but it's mostly used to maintain stability.

SCHMITZ: Megvii's Xie Yinan insists China is using its technology to keep cities safe. When I ask him what he'd think if foreign governments used his technology to crack down on its citizens, he quotes Google's founders.

XIE: (Through interpreter) Our founders also think don't be evil is the No. 1 principle. If a government is using it to control locals, we'd think twice about doing business with them. Our principle is to empower humans, not to control them.

SCHMITZ: Plus, Xie says, the algorithm capacity of the fastest servers isn't enough to support data from thousands of cameras capturing hundreds of millions of people at any given time. But it can give you a high score on your attractiveness. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.