Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

[oped of the day] Techno-Politics: Focus on China’s facial recognition technologies


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : Chinese state surveillance

Op-ed of the day is the most important editorial of the day. This will cover a key issue that came in the news and for which students must pay attention. This will also take care of certain key issues students have to cover in respective GS papers.


The new round of US sanctions against China have turned the light on surveillance technologies including facial recognition that gained much traction in recent years.

US sanctions on Chinese tech companies

    •  US announced measures against around two-dozen entities.
    • Some of them are leading companies in China’s artificial intelligence industry. 
    • They manufacture surveillance cameras as well as work on facial recognition.
    • The rest are public security agencies in China. 
    • These entities will no longer be able to access US technology products without a license. 
    • China’s top technology company, Huawei, is already under US sanctions.

New centers of tensions

    • Over the last couple of years, technology issues have emerged at the front and centre of the deepening Sino-US trade tensions. 
    • There is an additional dimension to the trade war— human rights and the treatment of China’s Muslim minorities.
    • So far the US administration has been criticised for downplaying human rights considerations in America’s external relations. But, now, bringing human rights into the arguments on technology could mark a decisive moment in the unfolding conflict.

The misuse of technology by China – Within China

    • Beijing has used facial recognition technologies to establish a surveillance state beyond Xinjiang to stamp out any potential dissent across China. 
    • These entities have been accused of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups.

The misuse of technology by China – outside China

    • A growing facial recognition industry has also created the basis for China’s export of surveillance systems around the world.
    • According to a recent report of Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Chinese companies have exported surveillance technologies based on AI to 63 countries. 36 of these countries are participants in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
    • China’s exports come with soft loans and the promise of better law and order. When Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena visited Beijing, weeks after the Easter bombings, China reportedly offered to share surveillance technologies to strengthen Colombo’s war on terror.
    • Many developed countries have allowed Chinese companies to set up surveillance systems as part of ‘smart city’ projects, improve border controls and control illegal immigration

Apprehensions about the technologies

    • It has implications for privacy and freedom.
    • There is a genuine apprehension in North America and Europe that China’s surveillance companies are sucking up data on Western populations and might weaponise it in the future. 
    • There is also the question of democratic rights including privacy and freedom.
    • California approved a law banning the police departments in the state from using facial recognition software on surveillance cameras. It highlighted the fact that facial recognition technology is prone to significant errors
    • The European Union too is considering regulations that impose strict limitations on the use of facial recognition technologies.

Two sides of technology

    • Like all technologies, facial recognition too can be deployed for either good and bad. 
    • It can be used for better law enforcement or promote political repression. 
    • It can be deployed to prevent terrorism or curb political protest
    • Many technology companies already use facial recognition for commercial use. Some brands of smartphones and laptops now use facial recognition technology for logging you in. 

Way ahead

    • The challenge in democracies is about defining appropriate norms for their use and finding a balance between multiple imperatives.
    • China’s expansive use of surveillance technologies and the US challenge to it mark the beginning a wider global debate on the use of facial recognition as a political, security and commercial tool.
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