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Opinion | The next cold war could centre around facial recognition tech

While the Chinese authorities are supportive of its use, US lawmakers are wary of privacy limits being breached

Financial markets the world over are looking at the US-China trade war with a great deal of concern. Last week, a Chinese spokesperson said that the US would have to reverse its “wrong actions" before talks could continue. Global financial markets are not happy. Most of them finished in the red during the latter half of the week, except India’s, which was reacting to the country’s election news.

The new fear is that the US-China face off on trade may escalate into a long-term cold war. Many of us may think that this is due to tariffs imposed on each other’s manufactured goods. But the truth is that this is a battle for establishing hegemony over technology. After first trying, without success, to replicate India’s gains in information technology (IT) services, China jettisoned this effort and focused on deep-tech. It has made vast strides in the last decade.

The Chinese moved to wall off their economy from US Big Tech firms and created home-grown rivals instead. According to a White House report dating from the final days of president Barack Obama’s administration, the Chinese have leapfrogged the US in Artificial Intelligence (AI) research. This is especially true in the “neural networks" and “deep learning" areas. Importantly, the intellectual property produced actually belongs to China. It is not a faithful duplicate of someone else’s product or technology.

The story doesn’t end with AI. The technology that I most fear is facial-recognition. Advances in machine learning have created software programs that can identify the unique pattern of a human’s face from imagery or video much more accurately and quickly than was possible just two years ago. The use of large data sets of faces to train AI software and powerful computer processors is now beginning to filter into different applications.

China has flung its facial-recognition net further afield. A few weeks ago, I wrote of Chinese “aid" money doled out to Ecuador to help the Latin American country’s emergency management system. It appears similar deals exist with African countries. The “aid" money goes into buying surveillance cameras and facial-recognition technology from Chinese giants such as Hikvision and Zhejiang Dahua. The promoters of such companies have turned billionaires almost overnight. Both Hikvision and Zhejiang are banned from selling their equipment to the US government and its law enforcing agencies. Many of these cameras also use chips from telecom giant Huawei, which is at the centre of the US-China face-off.

While “tech determinism" (the idea that tech is taking over anyway, so what does one have to lose when 500 million other people also use this technology) is what keeps us chained to our smartphones and apps that we blithely give our private data to, it is also true that we still have a choice. For instance, if we want to be discreet about our whereabouts, we can choose to leave our smartphones at home when we go out. Not so with facial-recognition technology. Surveillance cameras mean that our every move outdoors can be tracked. The combination of web-tracking and surveillance cameras imply that spaces in which human beings are not tracked will shrink. If this data falls into criminal hands, one might as well stay home all the time and black out the windows.

China and the US have differing approaches in their use of this technology. Chinese authorities are supportive of its use, but US local, state and federal legislatures are far more wary of privacy limits getting breached. On 14 May, San Francisco’s legislature voted to ban city agencies from using facial-recognition technology. This attitude is also found in Europe and the UK. A British man is suing the police in South Wales for having recorded and recognized his face without his permission.

The rest of the world has been slower to wake up to this phenomenon, but as the Chinese and Americans solidify their positions, each country will soon move with certainty to define the limits as well as the allowable uses of facial-recognition technology. One would expect, correctly, that countries like Germany, Israel and Russia would be quite far along in this journey. Interestingly, India has also been making its own strides in this area.

I spoke last week with Tarun Wig, founder of the Series A-funded startup Innefu Labs. Innefu has made significant strides in the analysis of video and other data available on social media platforms, as well as other available camera footage. Wig claims that Innefu Labs is the only company in the country to have implemented five predictive intelligence frameworks based on facial recognition technology in different organizations. The startup’s Predictive Intelligence platform ingests and extracts intelligence from raw documents, closed-circuit videos and other images. According to Wig, all intelligence is subsequently correlated to provide a “360-degree" view of the data.

Wig claims that Innefu Labs’ products are used for predicting mass infiltration, mass agitations and the position of pickets to reduce chain-snatching and robbery. He says they were used by the Delhi police for this year’s Republic Day parade. One wonders whether they could also be used for predicting Delhi’s gangster shoot-outs.

Big Brother now wants to watch us, and not just track our moves on the web. The next cold war will revolve around facial-recognition technology.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India.

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