China Public Video Surveillance Guide: From Skynet to Sharp Eyes

Published Jun 14, 2018 13:26 PM
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China is expanding its video surveillance network to achieve “100%” nationwide coverage by 2020, including facial recognition capabilities and a database that allows authorities to track and cross-check video data across the country.

This program is known as “Sharp Eyes” and represents a top-level push for video surveillance that’s globally unprecedented. In this post, we examine the requirements for Sharp Eyes systems, what role facial recognition plays, and how Chinese manufacturers are capitalizing on the opportunity, including:

  • What is Sharp Eyes?
  • "No Blind Spots"
  • Camera Requirements For China Public Surveillance
  • Facial Recognition and Other Analytics Promoted
  • Facial Recognition & Analytics Requirements
  • Technical Issues 
  • Privacy Protection Absent
  • Rapid Implementation
  • Chinese Surveillance Firms Capitalize
  • Comparison to Video Surveillance in the West

What Is Sharp Eyes?

Sharp Eyes, or the ‘Xueliang’ Project in Chinese, is China’s latest mass video surveillance program.

China already launched a national video surveillance system called Skynet in 2005 to "fight crime and prevent possible disasters,"state media reported. (Skynet is the literal translation of the Chinese word for the program and has no relation to the antagonist in the Terminator series.)

But Sharp Eyes represents a large expansion of Skynet, with much bigger goals.

Sharp Eyes was launched after China’s top planning authority, the National Development and Reform Commission, mandated in 2015 that video surveillance cover “100%” of China’s public areas and key industries by 2020.

The NDRC said that an “omnipresent, fully networked, always working and fully controllable” video surveillance system be set up “at all levels” of government down to local party committees.

“No Blind Spots”

The NDRC plan stipulates that by 2020 there must be “no blind spots” in video coverage of “key nodes” on major roads, “no blind spots in densely populated areas” nor any “important foreign-related sites”.

The goal of “no blind spots” is ambitious but also highly improbable. The NDRC mandates no less than 100% coverage in all the following areas:

  • The coverage rate of video surveillance in key public areas must reach 100%
  • The video monitoring coverage rate of important parts of key industries and fields must reach 100%
  • The coverage of video surveillance in public areas of residential communities should reach 100%.
  • The proportion of newly- built and reconstructed high-definition cameras must reach 100%

However, Baidu Streetview photos of intersections in Beijing from 2017, a city which state media reported already achieved "100% coverage" by the end of 2015, show plenty of potential blind spots. Many cameras used are PTZ or bullet cameras, which by definition have a limited field of view. 

In this intersection, for example, 3 out of 4 roads had one bullet camera to record traffic - not exactly "100% coverage," although it's possible more will be installed by 2020 when Sharp Eyes is completed.


Some Chinese authorities seem aware of this problem. One local Sharp Eyes construction plan [link no longer available] calls for upgrades in camera systems and more use of 360-degree panoramic cameras, for example. 

But IPVM hasn’t found any national-level guidance addressing this issue, and for now it seems authorities are interpreting the “no blind spots” mandate by installing video cameras in every conceivable “public” area possible.

One provincial government released an extensive list [link no longer available] of all the areas where video surveillance needs to be installed, which included but is certainly not limited to:

  • city squares and plazas
  • any place with regular public gatherings
  • major roads and intersections in cities and towns
  • intersections and roads near Party and government agencies
  • toll booths and police checkpoints
  • major infrastructure like ports, train stations, monuments, hospitals, bridges, tunnels
  • entrances and exits of radio, TV, and newspaper stations
  • entrance and exits of Party and government offices
  • Postal offices and financial institutions
  • Energy and power facilities
  • Parks, museums, and monuments
  • Prisons and any detention facilities
  • Farmer’s markets

Camera Requirements

Even laws coming from the very top in China are often quite vague and lacking in details, like the Cybersecurity Law passed in 2017. As such, there are no technical details about how Sharp Eyes is supposed to be carried out in official legislation. (For example, what type and how many cameras should be used.)

However, the most common security cameras mentioned when Sharp Eyes projects are discussed by Chinese media and security firms are 2MP HD cameras.  

The brand of the camera does not seem to matter as long as it conforms with GB/T28181 [link no longer available], a video surveillance interoperability standard specifically for Chinese authorities.

  • One Chinese media example of a generic Sharp Eyes project states: “a 2-megapixel high-definition camera with a resolution of 1920×1080 and a bit rate of 8 Mbps”.
  • The GB/T28181 standard can be used in cameras from firms like Hikvision, Dahua, Kodak, Axis, and Honeywell and presumably many others.

Some details can be gleaned from bidding documents for Sharp Eyes projects. One document for a Sharp Eyes project in Hubei province specifies the following equipment:

  • 2MP PTZ and dome Starlight cameras, with 37x optical zoom, up to 60fps, and infrared up to 450 meters (similar in specs to this Dahua model [link no longer available])
  • H.264 and H.265-capable processing centers
  • LPR cameras with “not less than 99%” vehicle detection rates, traffic flow statistics capability, and seat belt detection rates no lower than 90% accuracy.
  • For facial recognition, 2MP HD “smart dome” cameras “with a target size of not less than 1/1.8 inch" image sensor size, which would result in better low light performance everything being equal.

More details can be gathered from provincial Sharp Eyes implementation plans, which every province is supposed to formulate. According to this plan [link no longer available] from Fujian province:

  • Exact camera placements are to be decided by municipal police bureaus in coordination with the Provincial Police Geographic Information System platform or PGIS.
  • Video needs to be stored at least 1 month, with the most sensitive areas having storage of 3 months. This conforms to China’s anti-terrorism law [link no longer available].

Lastly, while IPVM couldn’t locate clear national guidelines on camera placements, the Baidu entry [link no longer available] for Sharp Eyes states that HD bullet cameras are placed on “main roads and public areas to monitor the flows of people” while HD network dome cameras are used on the “corners of plazas and dense buildings.”

Facial Recognition and Other Analytics Promoted

Under Sharp Eyes, authorities must promote “modern technologies such as data mining, face recognition, license plate recognition, intelligent warning systems”, the NDRC states.

This dovetails neatly with China’s major push into AI and analytics. China’s Internet+ initiative, a national program to encourage internet use in industry and government, called for authorities to incorporate facial recognition capabilities as part of their “artificial intelligence ecosystem.”

IPVM could not find specific guidelines as to facial recognition’s implementation level or required accuracy rate.

According to photos of security cameras in China and Baidu’s Streetview function, many cameras are too high up to be of much use for facial recognition purposes. See these photos from an intersection in Shanghai in 2016:

Or this camera in Chengdu (also from 2016):

The Vice President of major Chinese facial recognition software company Sensetime recently told NPR that "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."

While that's roughly true, IPVM obtained photos of cameras in one major Chinese city that were possibly aimed low enough to have substantial facial recognition capabilities.

Even if it’s not fully available throughout the system and official efficacy claims are doubtful, facial recognition technology is a crucial component of Sharp Eyes. Chinese cities and companies routinely promote their use of it:

  • Baiyun district in Guangdong province (pop 1m) claimed its Sharp Eyes cameras could “not only capture the faces of every person entering and leaving the community in real time, but also transmit the face images to the platform for automatic comparison and recognition”.
  • Kaili City (pop 0.5m) in Guizhou province said it would install over 2,000 facial recognition cameras.
  • Hikvision recently won a $125m Sharp Eyes project in Xi’an, a city of over 12m people, which includes 5,000 face recognition cameras out of a total 45,000 to cameras.

It’s partly thanks to Sharp Eyes that China now has three facial recognition startups with valuations over $1 billion - the previously-mentioned Sensetime raised $1.2 billion in only a few months this year and is valued at $4.5 billion alone. Although facial recognition is used for routine tasks like opening bank accounts, experts estimate much of their revenue comes from the public security sector.

Facial Recognition & Analytics Requirements

But what kind of standards does mass facial recognition and video analytics require? This “Sharp Eyes Project Construction Guide” states:

    • On face recognition (section “the camera has to remain as horizontal as possible. Horizontal deviation should be less than 10 degrees... Vertical deviation should be around 10 degrees, plus or minus a 3-degree margin."
    • also notes that for accurate face detection in a 2MP camera, Field of View can't be wider than 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) - a very tight setting that would effectively require many cameras. For a 6MP camera, maximum FoV width is listed as 4.2 meters (13.8 feet).
    • On LPR (section a 6-lane, 2-way road should have one LPR camera/“smart monitoring unit” per every 2 to 3 lanes. Counting for both ways, that would involve at least six cameras on a 6-lane road. These smart camera sets should include: “vehicle capture, license plate recognition, vehicle identification, and body color identification” while “each lane is equipped with a supplemental light as an auxiliary light source.”

As to the quality of the facial recognition cameras themselves:

  • Infinova is touting facial recognition cameras with 1080p for its Safe City/Sharp Eyes projects.
  • Dahua is also touting [link no longer available]facial recognition cameras for use in Sharp Eyes projects, including the 4K Ultra Starlight model. [link no longer available]  [link no longer available]
  • The local government in Guangzhou’s Baiyun district stated its Sharp Eyes facial recognition system was being done by 2MP bullet cameras [link no longer available]. The local government also “cleverly” uses 6 “intelligent monitoring sets” which are composed of front and rear bullet cameras and a 360-degree dome camera in order to automatically notify authorities when people enter forbidden areas or climb a fence.
  • For one example of image quality taken by facial recognition cameras in China, the Shenzhen police is publishing [link no longer available] photos of jaywalkers. While most faces are blurred, one photo includes an unblurred face: [link no longer available]

  •  For more details on facial recognition cameras, Hikvision lists several models of face comparison and face detection cameras on its China website.

Technical Issues

China’s state-controlled media has been pumping out positive stories of Sharp Eyes-related achievements on an almost daily basis. However, some officials have been more honest about the difficulties involved:

  • One local police chief told the Chinese version of Asmag that applying mass facial recognition “can be said to be overwhelming” while there were “many problems” in the Sharp Eyes’ project’s “practical implementation.
  • The Sharp Eyes implementation plan [link no longer available]from Fujian province also notes issues with implementing such a high level of video surveillance, noting that historically its video surveillance standards “are not uniform,” are “difficult to integrate,” while there was a lack of funds and professionals to properly install systems.

Privacy Protections Absent

None of the legislation or guidelines surrounding facial recognition or mass surveillance examined by IPVM makes mention of privacy safeguards or clear limits on its use by authorities.

China has passed some privacy protections which include biometric data that will be implemented in May 2018, but these give Chinese authorities “much wider scope” when it comes to national security and law enforcement compared to European privacy laws like the GDPR.

Rapid Implementation

Officially, implementation of Sharp Eyes has been rapid. By June 2016, 50 cities across China were piloting Sharp Eyes projects, according to Chinese media. The pilot city of Linyi (population 2.3m) now has 360,000 cameras installed, for example.

The system is now focusing on expanding video surveillance to rural areas, a move confirmed by Sharp Eyes’ inclusion in the “Number 1 Document” of the Central Government, a top-level guideline on rural policy.

Chinese media has been promoting the use of Sharp Eyes in villages, saying locals can download an app that allows them to access public video surveillance feeds and report suspicious activity to police.

Chinese Surveillance Firms Capitalize

The market for Sharp Eyes projects in 2017 was estimated at $4.11 billion just for projects larger than $16 million, according to a Chinese trade publication and bidding website.

Sharp Eyes has opened up a competitive “battlefield” among security companies and integrators, Chinese media reported.


  • Hikvision has discussed the government’s efforts to achieve “100%” video surveillance coverage by 2020, writing "As the leading player in the security industry, Hikvision is bound to seize this opportunity, and we have also fully prepared for this."
  • Sharp Eyes is leading Hikvision to incorporate more facial recognition technology in its software, a Hikvision marketing executive said in an interview about Sharp Eyes.


Comparison to Video Surveillance in the West

Western governments have promoted video surveillance at various points in time, especially after 9/11. However, their scope remains limited in scope and intent:

Nothing comes close to the scope of China’s Sharp Eyes. The pilot city of Linyi (population 2.3m) now has 360,000 cameras installed as part of the program, according to Chinese state media.

Furthermore, the West has institutions and organizations capable of pushing back against mass surveillance. For example, after activists pushed back against an integrated police surveillance system plan for Oakland, CA, the city passed what the ACLU described as the US' strongest surveillance regulations.

Such barriers are obviously almost non-existent in China, a one-party state.

Even if Sharp Eyes’ “100%” coverage is logistically impossible, Chinese authorities are taking it seriously. Video surveillance has been emphasized repeatedly across key Chinese legislation:

  • China’s anti-terrorism law mandates “local people’s governments” to install video surveillance systems “to prevent terrorist attacks.”
  • The law even imposes fines up to $15,000 on "public security organs" who fail to establish and adequately maintain “public safety video and image information systems”, including personal fines of up to $1,500 for people personally responsible for such lapses.
  • Sharp Eyes has been incorporated into the 13th Five Year Plan, China’s top development guideline.

The results are clear.

The latest figures show the UK has about 6 million cameras, or one for every 10 Britons. In the US, that number is 62 million, or one for every 5 Americans.

Hikvision had sales of 55 million cameras in 2016, over 70 million in 2017, and projects over 90 million in 2018. Given that ~70% of Hikvision's sales are in China, at this rate Hikvision alone will add 250 million cameras inside China between 2017 and 2020.

That’s about one new Hikvision security camera for every five Chinese people. And with Hikvision supplying 'only' around half of the Chinese video surveillance market, this puts the People's Republic of China on track to not only be the heaviest video-surveilled country in the world, but also one with an unprecedented level of government-controlled video surveillance.

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