News & Politics

These Spy Sunglasses Help Cops Pick a Face From a Crowd of Thousands

They're only in use in China...for now.

Photo Credit: Twitter / The People's Daily

An Orwellian new tech gadget is helping China expand its already massive surveillance state, and it may only be a matter of time until other countries take an interest in the device. Police in central China are the early adopters of sunglasses outfitted with face-recognition technology that can pick a suspect out of a crowd. The Wall Street Journal reports that Beijing manufacturer LLVision Technology Corp. has said in early tests, “the device has been able to identify individuals in a database of 10,000 suspects in as little as 100 milliseconds.”

That means in the very near future, it may be nearly impossible to get lost in a crowd.

Here’s how it works: Wearers of the smart sunglasses scan a large group of people while the glasses collect biometric information from the faces in the group. Cameras mounted on the glasses run captured images through an offline database of faces to determine a perfect match. For years, Chinese officials have been collecting biometric information including eye scans, blood types and even “voice pattern” samples from citizens in various provinces. Human Rights Watch reported last year that China's law enforcement databases "have more than one billion faces and 40 million people’s DNA samples.” With such a vast collection of data, results from pilot runs of the glasses have already yielded results. 

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Transit cops in Zhengzhou, home to one of China’s biggest and busiest train stations, have worn the glasses while they monitor the millions of commuters traveling for Lunar New Year, the largest annual migration on Earth. A state-run newspaper claims the glasses have helped cops bust “seven people wanted in connection with major criminal cases, and 26 others who were traveling using other people’s identities.”

There are already more than 170 million surveillance cameras across China, and the government has announced 400 more will be installed in the next three years. But while CCTV cameras are highly effective tools for ferreting out suspects (and spying on citizens), they don’t offer the speediness of the new camera devices. “In many cases, by the time authorities rush to where a suspect has been identified, their target has melted back into the crowd,” WSJ notes. That problem is erased by these all-seeing, artificial intelligence sunglasses, which allow wearers to keep subjects locked in their sights.

“By making wearable glasses, with AI on the front end, you get instant and accurate feedback,” Wu Fei, CEO of LLVision, told WSJ. “You can decide right away what the next interaction is going to be.”

Without crossing the line from healthy concern to paranoia, it’s worth wondering if this new surveillance advancement could end up being used to keep a watchful eye on American citizens. There are already more than 35 million surveillance cameras across the U.S., and the use of facial recognition technology has been steadily expanding. In 2016, a study by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology found that roughly half of Americans have their pictures in law enforcement facial recognition networks. According to an ACLU report, “the Baltimore Police Department used [facial recognition] to locate, identify and arrest certain people protesting Freddie Gray’s death in police custody” and “the Los Angeles Police Department deployed to undisclosed locations 16 wireless video cameras that can conduct real-time face recognition.” Another ACLU cautionary report on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Traveler Verification Service warns of the program’s mission to use facial recognition technology on every passenger boarding a flight bound for outside of America’s borders. Raising the concern of mission creep, the ACLU points out that facial recognition technology has “higher error rates” when assessing the faces of African Americans and women and children of all races.

A less advanced version of the glasses, lacking facial recognition technology, has reportedly been shipped to parts of Africa, Europe, Japan and the U.S. But WSJ indicates that LLVision, like every money-making entity, wants to increase sales of its newest spy gadget far beyond the borders of its home country. That could very well lead to bulk sales of its new glasses to law enforcement entities in other countries.

“There might be an opportunity there,” Wu suggested to the outlet. “Who knows?"

Kali Holloway is a senior writing fellow and the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.