China’s coronavirus campaign leaks into surveillance systems

The outbreak of the coronavirus in China has given an unprecedented insight into how a wide range of surveillance cameras work, as observation stations have been rearranged as epidemic “war rooms” to help monitor human movements and suppress disease.

China is trying to build one of the world’s most advanced surveillance technology networks, with millions of cameras in public places and increasing use of technologies such as smartphone monitoring and facial recognition.

This year, towns and villages across the country have used the system to be labeled by the government as an “all-out war on coronavirus.”

Although authorities initially used mobile location data and ID-linked tracing apps to flag for isolation of returnees, camera surveillance has played a significant role, according to officials, state media and residents.

The network has been used to identify people who have been confirmed to be infected with the virus and to punish businesses and individuals for violating restrictions.

“It’s a war situation,” said Wang, a civilian employee in Tianjin who was involved in searching for thousands of people linked to the coronavirus cluster in a department store.

“We must adopt wartime thinking.”

Despite the system’s high-tech ambitions, it relies heavily on many people to watch on-screen footage.

Known as “grid members”, they sit in the monitoring room or look at the smart-phone feed from the camera network.

“This type of surveillance technology is far more man-made than the technology used,” said James Leibold, an associate professor at La Trobe University in Australia, who has studied similar systems in the far west of Xinjiang, China.

‘Wartime Restrictions’
State media, officials and local governments have detailed the activities of the system in the campaign against the coronavirus.

In the province where the coronavirus appeared late last year, in the village of Donghan in Hubei, grid member Liu Ganhe saw six villagers gather without masks, so he called the authorities.

“Village workers rushed to the scene to disperse the crowd and educate the people,” the media said, praising the “wartime restrictions” system was able to be implemented.

The county’s system costs CNY 40 million (about Rs 42 crore) and includes more than 4,400 cameras, it said.

Grid member He Haijun saw villagers gathering in Yongzhou County in Hunan Province, so he shouted at them through a village loudspeaker, state media reported.

“In two minutes, the villagers have returned to their homes,” it reported.

The use of loudspeakers to break up the rally was something that residents of four villages in northeastern China confirmed to Reuters.

Authorities also installed cameras outside Hubei’s virus hotspots and the homes of people from abroad.

In another Hunan city, Jiangtan, the system was used to detect a person found in a shopping center with high temperatures that slipped on a motorbike, state media reported.

Officers tracked him using cameras and sent public security officers to alert him.

State media has published pictures of the officers on multiple screens at the police station. Others scrutinize the footage of volunteer workers and share clips in the messaging app.

‘It works’
Although surveillance may be preliminary in places, public knowledge of the system probably helps in implementation.

“It carries the perception that someone is watching you, and it moderates human behavior and changes people’s thinking over time,” Leibold said.

“I think it’s going to be one of the longest lessons from Kovid. It actually works.”

Details shared by residents and officials suggest that machine learning and facial recognition have also played a role in larger cities.

In Tianjin, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Beijing, officials went to the homes of people involved in the department store outbreak in late February using data from surveillance footage, officials and residents told Reuters.

Officials determined the exact time that the infected shop staff was exposed to customers and then searched for captives in the footage around the store at that time.

Local authority equipment collection documents, available on various websites and collected by Reuters, detail the area’s surveillance systems, including face recognition technology that can trace a person’s movements for up to 90 days.

More than 9,000 people have been placed in quarantine.

“The cadres discovered them one by one through scans created by public security cameras,” a Tianjin government official told Reuters.

ম Thomson Reuters 2020

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