Mark Wilson #2

The writer is an international journalist based in Port of Spain

IT’S all happening in Guyana. Oil boom. Constitutional crisis. Impending elections. And now, the Big Brother Is Watching You stuff.

Since late last month, Georgetown has been monitored by 102 Chinese-funded intelligent video surveillance sites, each with three or four cameras and a facial recognition tie-in.

They are linked to a facial tracking system at the new Safe City Command Centre. If you walk past a camera, it scans your face and can run your picture past a database. It can show where you are, and track where you’ve been.

The cameras can also scan vehicle registration plates, linking them to a location history search system, showing where the vehicle has been in the past few hours—or indeed, over an extended period.

There are also vehicle-mounted systems, body cameras, radios and other stuff.

The Safe City Command Centre is a component of Guyana’s US$36 million National Broadband Extension Project, funded by China Exim Bank and implemented by Huawei Technologies.

“We can literally track vehicles, track suspects to the extent to knowing where they are and what time they would have been there through this technology, I am just so thrilled,” public security minister Khemraj Ramjattan told Stabroek News at the system’s media launch.

The system can track streetside currency trades, drug deals, streets outside nightspots and casinos.

Like us, Guyana has a problem with violent crime. Last year’s murder rate was slightly more than one-third of T&T’s—but that’s bad enough. In principle, tracking faces and tracking vehicles could help bring suspects to justice.

More routinely, the system could deal with a whole range of traffic offences.

Geography helps. For now, the system covers Georgetown, and the east bank of the Demerara River, astride the airport road to the south of the city. This is Guyana’s main population centre, and the main hotbed for violent crime.

There are only three ways out by road—along the coast to the east, across the rickety floating bridge to the west, and south towards the airport. It won’t be possible to enter or leave this population pocket without being tracked.

There are plans to extend the system nationwide. For other coastal settlements, that may be practical. For the thinly populated interior and Guyana’s porous borders, that sounds tougher. There are hundreds of miles of rainforest, swamp and savanna.

Not everyone is as thrilled as Ramjattan with Huawei’s Chinese-designed Safe City Command Centre.

University of Guyana lecturer Sherwood Lowe is concerned that “storage, cross-referencing, and aggregation of data, create a detailed record of a person’s life.” He quotes a 2012 US Supreme Court case on GPS vehicle tracking, which raised concerns that it could monitor “familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.”

Computer engineer Heather Chin says there’s no legal framework for the new system. It’s far from clear whether facial recognition and number plate evidence could be used in court—though intelligence gathering is another story.

Another engineer, Darshanand Khusial, says “if we move too fast with facial recognition, we may find that people’s fundamental rights are being broken.” He notes that Microsoft has refused to sell its facial recognition technology to California police.

But the Financial Times reports that Microsoft has shared a training dataset of ten million facial images with military researchers and Chinese companies.

Google in October last year withdrew from bidding for a US$10 billion contract developing facial recognition software for US military drones. Yes, that’s ten billion, not million. When Google turns down money like that, there’s something going on.

Huawei, meanwhile, is itself a controversial player, blacklisted by the US in May because of national security concerns—which the company, naturally enough, says are groundless.

Facial recognition technology is everywhere, not least on Facebook, suggesting (usually accurate) names for people in posted images.

In China, facial recognition cameras can spot and fine jaywalkers and traffic offenders.

They can monitor students at school gates, and in classes to check if they’re looking bored.

In Moscow, “people of interest” are tracked on the streets. An Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports use of facial recognition cameras to monitor Palestinians, deep inside the West Bank as well as at border checkpoints.

Supermarkets can tell where your eyes are wandering as you stroll the aisles. English football clubs are talking about facial recognition to fast-track prepaid stadium entry.

Systems aren’t always accurate. It may not matter if Facebook picks the wrong auntie from the birthday shot. But sometimes, there’s more at stake.

Blurry and poorly-lit images give trouble. A US study last year showed women more frequently mis-identified than men, dark-skinned faces more than white, and older ones more than the young. Ah, those troublesome wrinkles.

The American Civil Liberties Union last year tried out Amazon’s system last year on all members of Congress; 28 were linked to a dataset of 25,000 arrest photos. But accuracy is improving by the minute. One US study found the failure rate in controlled conditions falling from four per cent to 0.2 per cent over four years.

But this is Guyana. What could possibly go wrong?

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