China's Face Recognition Tech in Africa Could Be Despots Best Friend

China has lovingly embraced facial recognition technology. When you have a government whose existence is predicated on eradicating the seeds of dissent through suffocating societal control, the people of China never really had a choice but to learn to live with 24/7 surveillance.

Aside from knowing that their government has the ability to trace the citizenry as they hustle and bustle through the public square, citizens in China’s largest metropole are reminded every time they enter their apartment: Big Brother knows your face, they see where you’re sleeping, and they know when you’re awake, as well as where you’re going.

‘For 40-year-old Mao Ya, the facial recognition camera that allows access to her apartment house is simply a useful convenience.

“If I am carrying shopping bags in both hands, I just have to look ahead and the door swings open,” she said. “And my 5-year-old daughter can just look up at the camera and get in. It’s good for kids because they often lose their keys.”’ (Washington Post)

Mao Ya isn’t a rabble-rouser. She’s not going to speak ill of the cameras that now occupy increasing space in her life. She cites the convenience of these cameras as proof of their goodness in society, but even Mao understands the overarching, unspoken point of these cameras: for the authorities to be able to watch, and just as importantly, for the citizenry to know that the authorities are watching, and adjusting their social credit scores accordingly.

These facial recognition systems aren’t limited to Chinese citizens, either. And, considering that Marriott International has partnered with Chinese tech giant Alibaba Group to install these cameras in two Chinese locations, you might be wise to anticipate facial recognition arriving in a State-side Marriott near you in the not-so-distant future.

Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel chain, announced earlier this month a rollout of facial recognition software for check-ins in partnership with Chinese tech giant Alibaba Group. The new kiosks at two Marriott locations in China will be able to scan and identify guests’ faces, pull up their reservations, and check them in--all without the help of humans.’ (Forbes)

Those who understand trends, and the ever-alluring luster of control, know that it is inevitable that these sort of technologies spread to the developed world. Americans are aware, to varying degrees, that these sorts of systems are already in place, and being made more robust daily.

But what about when these technologies are implemented in under-developed nations with fresh histories of unabashed tyranny or even genocide?

Well, China is putting that question to the test, with Guangzhou-based startup CloudWalk having sold the facial recognition to Zimbabwe, their ideological partner dating back to the Robert Mugabe presidency. The technological installation project is said to ‘help the government build a smart financial service network as well as introduce intelligent security applications at airports, railway stations and bus stations.’

It’s been pointed out that the Chinese government will have an ideal test case for working out the kinks that come from the differences in features across racial and ethnic lines. The ability for any government, especially China, to have a virtually flaw-free facial recognition network that can detect and follow virtually anybody throughout their nation and perhaps even abroad is concerning. Even more concerning is the reality that China is willing to sell this technology to what appears to be any nation with the funds, so long as they aren’t a geopolitical threat.

Because, if CloudWalk is willing to sell their powerful technology to a nation with the human rights record that Zimbabwe has, who’s to say they won’t sell it to virtually anybody?

While President Robert Mugabe was forced to leave his post at the spritely age of 93, he left a legacy of corruption, building lavish mansions across the globe as the nation he ruled toiled in extreme poverty and unprecedented hyperinflation. But, his regime was known even more for backward race relations. Tens of thousands died under his regime, both white and black. His notorious land reclamation program resulted in the deaths of countless white farmers, who had their land violently repossessed in the name of undoing the colonial legacy in the country.

And, with that man’s longtime consigliere Emmerson Mnangagwa sworn into the presidential office on November 17th, they will have unprecedented facial recognition tools, thanks to China. One can only imagine how many more of Mugabe’s political opponents would have died if they could be located in a matter of minutes thanks to a network of ubiquitous cameras. Africa, a continent in near-constant turmoil, will undoubtedly find only the most noble uses for the CloudWalk technology.


Sure… not.

Most of the world sees China, a supposed developed nation and a world power, as untrustworthy and abusive of their technological systems of power. Most Americans are and would continue to be uncomfortable with knowledge of a similar system, despite the significant differences in our culture and political systems.

Yet, a Chinese company seems willing to hand out their technology to Zimbabwe, a nation chastened by Genocide Watch as recently as 2013. It seems likely to be only a matter of time before this all goes horribly wrong.

But at least China will have their technology race-proofed, producing an indefatigable weapon against liberty and privacy. When wondering about why such a technology is not fit for any government, China’s willingness to potentially sacrifice the people of an African nation for their own monetary and technological game serves as case in point.

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