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The big picture: There's a new dynamic springing from the trade war that shows China is taking a big interest in shaping global surveillance standards. This could be just a coincidence, but the country is currently expanding its economic influence in underdeveloped regions, mostly through telecom infrastructure, which is at the heart of the current political tensions with the US.
According to a report from the Financial Times, the United Nations' standards for facial recognition are now being shaped by Chinese tech giants like China Telecom, ZTE, and Dahua. These companies are prominent for proposals on specifications that would unify the kind of face, video and vehicle monitoring adopted for surveillance purposes around the world.
The findings come from leaked documents that show how companies that are deeply involved in shaping these standards have an advantage in influencing regulation to more closely align with their own goals.
This advantage is especially visible in developing countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where China is using its Belt and Road Initiative to supply them with telecom and surveillance infrastructure. In turn, those countries are quickly adopting standards ratified by the UN's International Telecommunication Union.
This is concerning for a number of reasons, the most important being that developing nations don't have the resources to develop their own standards. This means China stands to gain control of a large chunk of the global market for the technology and the ability to push its own vision that facial recognition could be used by police to monitor suspects, by companies to oversee their employees, and by governments as a means of keeping track of certain minorities or people on a blacklist.
Then there's the troubling notion that wide adoption of these new standards and social acceptance of facial recognition could happen before the privacy implications are properly assessed.
A recent example of such a standard is one that was proposed by ZTE and China Mobile and approved in June this year for a smart street light design. There is an option to add AI-infused video monitoring capabilities to it that are not that different from the ones used against pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong.
The current ITU draft containing the proposed requirements for facial recognition will supposedly be completed by the end of the year. One of the requirements is for the storage of facial features, skin color, birth marks, scars, and other distinctive features in a database.
The EU is considering tighter control of facial recognition data, so that citizens can have more control and knowledge over how and when that data is used.
In the US, authorities have been using a strategy of moving fast and breaking things, which has prompted court action from ACLU and human rights groups that seek to increase transparency about the FBI, DOJ, and DEA's use of facial recognition tech.
Bilel Jamoussi, who leads ITU's Study Groups Department, said in a statement that "The principles underlying the ITU standardisation process aim to ensure that all voices are heard and that resulting standards have the consensus-derived support of the diverse, globally representative ITU membership."