Beijing police have ordered supermarkets and shopping malls to install high-definition security cameras, as China continues its huge expansion in monitoring technology.
The country has added millions of surveillance cameras over the last five years, part of a broader increase in domestic security spending.
In May, Shanghai announced that a team of 4,000 people would monitor its surveillance feeds to ensure round-the-clock coverage. The southwestern municipality of Chongqing has announced plans to add 200,000 cameras by 2014 because: “310,000 digital eyes are not enough.”
Urumqi, which saw ethnic violence in 2009, installed 17,000 riot-proof cameras last year to ensure “seamless” surveillance. Fast-developing Inner Mongolia plans to have 400,000 by 2012.
China is hardly unique: Britain has arguably led the world in the use of surveillance cameras, but China has embraced them with particular enthusiasm.
IMS Research, an electronics-focused consultancy, has predicted annual growth of more than 20- -percent in China between last year and 2014, and less then 10 percent elsewhere.
Bo Zhang, senior research analyst at IMS, believes that more than 10 million cameras were installed in China last year. The company estimates that spending reached ￡420 million (US$687.7 million) last year, with the total market — including related systems — exceeding ￡1 billion. Much of that is in the private sector, but Beijing’s initiative — targeting theft and food poisoning, say police — shows how officials are increasingly requiring companies to install cameras and link private networks with official ones.
Authorities are also investing heavily in new public projects and the national Safe City security plan aims to cover urban China with large networks.
Internal security spending has soared to almost ￡60 billion this year, more than the country’s official military budget.
China’s domestic security chief has also called for the creation of an advanced database covering every citizen to improve “social management.” Linked to individuals national identity cards, it would include details such as tax records and educational history.
“Whereas surveillance cameras are problematic even in democratic societies, there are important counterweights, such as independent courts and privacy statutes as well as independent media and NGO watchdogs,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“None of these safeguards exist in China, raising the very real -prospect of an Orwellian society — one in which citizens are monitored in permanence, including in their private life,” he added.
Although much of the imagery may not be watched in real time, it can be stored for later retrieval. Officials are also seeking ways to automate the analysis of data.
Using higher quality cameras paves the way for increasingly sophisticated analysis and linking of the information.
Xue Junling, a project manager with Shenzhen Xinghuo Electronic Engineering, said facial recognition was already being used at key points such as big sports stadiums and border checkpoints, although some experts dispute its effectiveness.
Many see nothing wrong with the rapid expansion in surveillance, particularly given official claims for their success in cutting crime. Shanghai police said video monitoring helped them to catch 6,000 suspects last year.