China uses phone facial recognition to track protesters

On Sunday, 20-year-old Zhang went to protests against China’s strict anti-COVID policies in Beijing dressed in a way he felt inconspicuous, with a balaclava and goggles to cover his face. When he was under the impression of being followed by plainclothes police, he ducked into a bush, put on a new outfit, and got rid of the police. At night, at home, he thought he came back safe.

The police called the next day. They knew that Zhang had left because of the geographic records on the young man’s smartphone, which indicated him in the area of ​​the protests. About 20 minutes after the call, three police officers arrived at his house and knocked on the door, even though Zhang did not give the address.

Victims and human rights groups stated in an interview with New York Times that stories similar to these have played out with protesters across China during this week marked by protests. Authorities seek to track, intimidate and arrest protesters and make use of advanced surveillance tools that the Chinese state has built over the last decade for times like the current one, when there is popular discontent against the Chinese Communist Party.

Protesters hold sheets of paper over their faces and show protest phrases in Beijing, China, on Nov. 27.  Chinese government uses smartphone data to identify them
Protesters hold sheets of paper over their faces and show protest phrases in Beijing, China, on Nov. 27. Chinese government uses smartphone data to identify them Photograph: Ng Han Guan / AP

Police used faces, phones and informants to identify those who participated in the protests. Typically, they put pressure on those being screened to commit not to protest again. Most of the time, protesters, inexperienced in tracking, are baffled by the way they were discovered and, for fear of consequences, delete foreign apps, such as Telegram, used to spread images of protests abroad.

The surveillance system is one of the most sophisticated in the world. There are millions of cameras scattered around corners and at building entrances with a facial recognition program to identify local citizens. Another program analyzes the collected data and images.

Although it’s no secret, the surveillance system seemed like something far away for many Chinese people. It is most often used to track political dissidents, ethnic minorities and migrant workers. Many citizens support the system on the grounds that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.

The interrogations of the last week may affect that idea. This is the first time that Chinese surveillance has been used directly against large numbers of Chinese middle class people in the country’s wealthiest cities. While many have experienced censorship – and demonstrated this week that they can get around it – a police raid on the home is less common and more intimidating.

“We are hearing stories of police showing up at people’s doorsteps asking where they were during protests, and this seems to be based on evidence collected through mass surveillance,” said Alkan Akad, China Research Fellow at Amnesty International. “China’s ‘Big Brother’ technology is never turned off, and the government hopes it will now prove its effectiveness in quelling the protests,” he added.

The marches and protests have been some of the most widespread and overtly political since those in 1989, which Beijing cracked down with military force in Tiananmen Square and left many dead. Now, Chinese authorities can drown out protests with high technology, hitting and arresting organizers and the most disaffected. Others manage to get away with it, but are severely threatened.

Monitor shows identification program used by China to track citizens, in this image taken on May 10, 2017
Monitor shows identification program used by China to track citizens, in this image taken on May 10, 2017 Photograph: Gilles SabriŽ/NYT

Stories like Zhang’s are common. Although he was aware of the facial recognition cameras spread across China’s public space, he downplayed the phone trackers. After being questioned at home and told not to attend another protest, the police left his apartment.

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Without revealing his full name for fear of reprisals, Zhang said in an interview that the visit terrified him. He considered that the police were effective in containing the momentum that the protests caused. “It’s going to be very difficult to mobilize people again,” he said. “At this point, people will come out of the streets.”

In other cases, the person who delivered was the face, not the geolocation. Wang, who also did not give his name, says he went to the protests in Beijing and two days later received a warning phone call from the police. On the call, the officers stated that he was identified with facial recognition.

Unlike other protesters, Wang did not cover his face with a hat or sunglasses, and he took off his medical mask at one point during the event. He said he wasn’t surprised that the police were able to identify him, but the use of such technology made him uncomfortable. “I knew the risks of going to a protest like this,” he said. “If they want to find us, they definitely can.”

The police phone call only lasted 10 minutes, but the officer did his best to intimidate him. “He clearly stated that there would be no second chances,” said the Chinese.

Chinese protesters at a vigil against the restrictive measures of covid, in Beijing, China.  Image is from November 27th
Chinese protesters at a vigil against the restrictive measures of covid, in Beijing, China. Image is from November 27th Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

After being arrested or stopped by the police, many protesters avoided using VPNs (virtual private networks) or other foreign apps such as Telegram and Signal. The fear, they say, is because they are now on the radar of the authorities. The software they use on their smartphones could be more closely monitored, with more attention from the police and the risk of being arrested.

Another protester, arrested on Monday in the central Chinese city of Chengdu, said he had his smartphone searched by police, who saw that he had Telegram and other foreign apps installed. Upon leaving prison, he deleted the apps.

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Some of the protesters tried to face the surveillance with tactics similar to those used in Hong Kong in 2019. In the protests that year, protesters tried to reveal the identities of the police, just as the police worked to reveal them. A list of about 60,000 Shanghai police officers’ identities – originating from a leak of Chinese Communist Party members in 2020 – was distributed in Telegram groups this week. Part of the documents were confirmed by the New York Times and include officers’ national ID numbers, addresses, marital status, ethnicity, and height.

For many protesters, the shock of being identified acted as an intimidation tactic in its own right. Wang, a filmmaker in her 20s, said she joined a group of friends in Beijing on Sunday night. Together, they covered their faces with medical masks, took a taxi several kilometers away and walked to the site of a protest. Even though they had been told to turn off their phones, they just turned off the GPS and Face ID features.

“We thought, at that time, that there were a lot of people. How could they be able to find each one? How could they have the energy to catch each one?” she said.

When several of his friends received phone calls or visits from the police, they were taken aback. Some were forced to give testimony and collaborate with the investigation, going to the police station. “I think my friends, if there is a next time, they won’t dare to go,” added Wang.

Still, Wang escaped the surveillance network and was not intimidated by what happened. That night, she used a phone with a number that was not linked to systems that could identify her, such as the country’s health program used to track Covid cases and ensure people are regularly tested in outbreak areas. “I still go; if the police find me, we’ll see,” she said. When asked about whether she would participate in a public protest again, she added: “I just feel like you have to go.”

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