Hikvision Wins Chinese Government Forced Facial Recognition Project Across 967 Mosques

By: Charles Rollet, Published on Jul 16, 2018

Hikvision has won a Chinese government tender which requires that facial recognition cameras be set up at the entrance of every single mosque (nearly 1,000 total) in a part of China under scrutiny for serious violations of religious freedom and human rights. 

Unlike the West, in China, religious groups are under the direct control of the Chinese government. Now, these mosques must allow facial recognition cameras to be set up and monitored by the Chinese government, enabling them to set alerts on people attending religious services as well as search when and how often people attend.

This is raising important questions:

  • How should governments be allowed to use facial recognition?
  • What restrictions should technology providers (like Hikvision) put on use of their facial recognition?
  • What are the ethics of such technology use?

Part of Billion Dollar Plus Rollout

Hikvision won a 2017 government contract for a ~$46 million USD to build an extensive surveillance system in Xinjiang province's Moyu County. The project is called  "Moyu County Social Defense System" (墨玉县社会面防控体系 PPP 项目).

The project is one of $1.2 billion massive surveillance projects Hikvision and Dahua have both won since 2016 in Xinjiang. Media and activists have accused China of building a surveillance state in the historically Muslim province in a wildly disproportionate response to Islamist terrorism and separatist movements.  

Prior Scrutiny 

The Moyu project drew particular scrutiny after wire news agency AFP reported that its original tender included six cameras for use in Xinjiang's "re-education" centers, places where China has allegedly detained hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.

AFP also reported that security cameras would be placed at every one of Moyu's 967 mosques, and confirmed that Hikvision had won the tender. 

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Facial Recognition Technical Details 

IPVM obtained this tender from the AFP and reviewed it.

The most invasive aspect is the mass use of facial recognition technology, as the tender requires:

967 facial recognition cameras to be placed at the entrance of each of the 967 mosques in Moyu County.

清真寺安防子系统在入口处设置,墨玉县 967 个清真寺,需购置摄像机 967 

The following technical details were included for the facial recognition cameras:

  • Minimum resolution of 1920x1080 and a TVL count of least 1100
  • Weatherization to function in extreme temperatures of -40 to 70 degrees Celsius
  • Encrypted SD card storage of 256 gigabytes which can only be accessed from a back-end terminal
  • Capability to process a “large batch” of facial samples.  

However, the tender makes no mention of required accuracy levels for facial recognition, which is a significant concern given the immaturity of the technology and the problems if mistakes are made.

State-Approved Video Conference Sermons Required

The project includes even more provisions for video-based surveillance and censorship systems specific to mosques, such as a video conferencing system for “unified” sermons to be broadcast in mosques from a “video conferencing hub” in Moyu County’s Ethnic Affairs Commission. Such a system would effectively eliminate the need for any preachers to hold their own sermons.

5+ Government Cameras Per Mosque

The project Hikvision won adds 840 security cameras for the mosques (in addition to the facial recognition cameras). These are a combination of bullet and dome cameras as well as night-time full color dome cameras. The tender estimates that each of Moyu County’s 967 mosques already has 5 security cameras, or a total of about 4,835 cameras. These existing cameras are to be integrated into the new surveillance system, i.e. the 967 facial recognition cameras + the 840 dome/bullet cameras.

Hikvision In Re-Education Camps

IPVM was also able to confirm AFP’s reporting that the tender Hikvision won supplied six 8-imager panoramic cameras to a re-education center in Moyu:

built-in lens with 8 image acquisition modules, and needs to output 1 main video visual and 8 auxiliary video visuals. The system should be able to splice the eight auxiliary videos to form two sets of 180-degree visuals

While the tender does not list the specific Hikvision model used, the closest match to that is the PanoVu Series 360°, shown to the right.

There are many re-education camps, however, and we have not found documentation yet showing the suppliers of those other camps.

Experts: Face Rec is “Significant Escalation” in China State Surveillance

While Xinjiang mosques have long been closely monitored by the government – including through the use of traditional security cameras – one expert on the region told IPVM the use of facial recognition represented a “significant escalation in the Party-state’s surveillance efforts” which would have a “chilling effect” on religious freedom in China. 

James Leibold, a professor at Australia’s La Trobe University, explained to IPVM:

The use of face recognition technology in Xinjiang mosques is about controlling the terms of access. The technology allows authorities to quickly identify blacklisted individuals and youth under the age of 18 and prevent them from accessing the mosque. It also allows them to keep more systematic data on who is attending, how often, and quickly identify any individuals who have been flagged due to ‘extremist’, anti-state or anti-party attitudes/behavior, and deny them access.

Another Xinjiang expert, China studies professor Timothy Grose at the Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, said he had heard of other cities like the capital of Urumqi also equipping mosque entrances with facial recognition cameras. Grose said he had witnessed young boys attend Friday prayers in 2015, despite the official ban, potentially putting such youths at risk for breaking the law. 

No Comment, Project “Secret”

Hikvision formally declined to comment to IPVM for this story.

However, Hikvision previously told AFP that it was continuing the Moyu project despite a provincial debt crackdown. It declined to give further details to AFP, claiming the project was “secret.”

Ethical Questions

The use of forced facial recognition in these mosques poses significant questions about the technology's broader ethics.

Indeed, in the European Union, the GDPR's Article 9 bans biometric processing techniques like facial recognition. It does include a "public interest" exception for authorities; however, the processing must "respect the essence of the right to data protection and provide for suitable and specific measures to safeguard the fundamental rights and the interests of the data subject".

Interest in regulation in the United States is increasing as well, even from technology companies. Just last week, Microsoft advocated public regulation of facial recognition and Amazon has come under scrutiny for public facial recognition pilots.

Of course, there is little chance of limits being placed on facial recognition within China's one-party authoritarian state. But should companies, like Hikvision that claim to be independent commercial entities be selling and deploying their facial recognition for such practices?

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