The camera lens homes in, mapping the man’s face—measuring the space between his eyes, the distance between the nose and mouth, the angle of his cheekbones, the shape of his chin. Instantly, that data is converted into a string of numbers or points, called a “faceprint.”
His face is recognized, compared with tens of millions of photos of faces in a database. His identity is confirmed. And he doesn’t even know he has been “detected,” “recognized” and “tracked.”
You’ve seen the images in movies. Many of us willingly submit our “data” every day, holding up our phone as the operating system algorithm detects, identifies and recognizes our face.
This is the mass AI technology that China has developed. And it is one of the most powerful surveillance tools—and Christian persecution tactics—ever made, especially when you consider that the country has installed millions of these cameras on streets, in public venues, on university campuses—and churches.
Facial recognition tech in all state-approved churches.
Reports from counties in Henan and Jiangxi provinces say cameras with facial recognition software are now in all state-approved religious venues.
China maintains it moved decisively to contain COVID-19 after the virus took flight in Wuhan, but for the country’s 97 million Christians, the cost in heavy restrictions—as surveillance reached into their homes, online and off-line interactions were tracked, and their faces were scanned into the Public Security database—is high.
Reports from counties in Henan and Jiangxi provinces say cameras with facial recognition software are now in all state-approved religious venues. Churches that have refused to install these cameras have been fined raided and even banned, like the 1,500-member Zion Church in northern Beijing.
In April 2018, Zion Church, one of the Chinese capital’s largest house churches, received a letter from city officials asking them to install 24 surveillance cameras in their sanctuary for “security reasons.”
“The church decided this was not appropriate,” Zion Church Pastor Ezra Jin told Reuters. “Our services are a sacred time.”
After the church refused, state security officials and police began to harass churchgoers, contacting their workplaces and asking them to promise not to go to church. In August 2018, authorities threatened to close Zion Church because they refused to install the cameras. A month later, officials banned the church and confiscated materials.
Zion leaders understood what the government was asking. Reportedly, many of these cameras are installed next to standard CCTV cameras, but they link to the Public Security Bureau, meaning artificial intelligence can instantly connect with other government databases. The facial recognition software will eventually be linked to China’s “Social Credit System,” which monitors the loyalty of citizens with regards to the tenets of communism. With 415 million surveillance cameras and counting, the state has the infrastructure and legal framework to pressure religious minorities in both direct and indirect ways we’ve never seen before.
And these potentially detrimental systems are spreading beyond China.