China’s subways track commuters as security takes on a silent, hi-tech face

Jane Cai

On a winter weekday morning, 26-year-old cartoon designer Li Yining was shivering at a pedestrian bridge leading to a subway station on the outskirts of Beijing. He huddled in his black down jacket, browsing news on his mobile phone while slowly shuffling forward in a 20-metre (65-foot) line towards the station entrance.

“It’s totally a waste of time,” Li said, pointing to security guards nonchalantly waving metal detector wands over each passenger in the jammed station hall. Meanwhile, luggage, backpacks, handbags and all kinds of belongings were on a sluggish conveyor belt trundling through an X-ray machine.

“It takes me at least 10 minutes to wait and get through the security checks every day,” said Li, who has a two-hour daily commute. “What’s the point of wasting the time of so many people?”

According to the China Association of Metros, the country’s subway system is among the busiest in the world, with Beijing and Shanghai networks each carrying more than 10 million passengers a day on average, three times as many as on London’s Tube and twice as many as the New York system. Subways in other big cities in China, such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Nanjing and Wuhan, each carry millions of passengers each day.

Subway officials say facial-recognition technology could make security more efficient on the country’s networks. Photo: Bloomberg

With so many people using the subway network, China has made security a priority, resulting in Li’s cold morning inconvenience. Many more commuters are unhappy with the delays. Authorities have suggested they can solve part of the problem by using facial recognition systems on subways, but that’s getting a mixed response because of privacy worries.

Beijing alone had nearly 30,000 security guards in 882 subway checkpoints as of 2018, official data show. That security task force costs the Beijing municipal government about 1.7 billion yuan (US$247 million) a year, or 125 yuan (US$18) from each taxpayer in the city.

In a survey of security staff by the Beijing Evening News in 2016, guards said they argued with passengers four times a day on average.

“There are huge numbers of passengers on the Beijing subway every day, putting great pressure on security checks,” Zhan Minghui, director of the Beijing Rail Traffic Control Centre, told a forum in the capital in October. Facial recognition technology was one way to make that process more efficient, he said.

In November, Beijing’s metro joined about a dozen cities across China in testing facial recognition systems, which are already used in many commercial applications and by public security departments. A trial is under way at a checkpoint in a Beijing downtown station.

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The move has generated complaints of privacy infringement, ignited criticism that the decision was made without any public hearing, and prompted commentary on whether China needs such measures given its already extensive public security system.

“I’m getting more and more perplexed by the endless investment in security measures,” Lao Dongyan, a law professor at Tsinghua University, wrote in her blog in November, making her one of the first intellectuals to voice the concerns. “I used to believe people like me were the target of protection. However, I’m now feeling like we are the target of the security and control measures.”

Work on China’s first subway started in the 1960s but the bulk of its nearly 3,800km (2,360 miles) of metro lines opened in the last decade. The first regular all-round subway security monitoring system was not launched until Beijing strengthened security for the Olympic Games in 2008.

However, unlike most other world cities that have hosted an Olympics, the system was left in place after the international event finished. The set-up was made part of China’s counterterrorism law in 2016, two years after President Xi Jinping announced plans to expand the nation’s security monitoring system.

“The logic starting point is to avoid terrorism attacks,” Feng Wei, an associate professor with the People’s Public Security University of China, wrote in an article in the Journal of Hubei University of Police in August 2019. “China is at a period of social transition, and the risks are severe and more complicated than in many other countries.”

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As China’s wealth gap widens and restructuring of the economy costs jobs in some sunset industries, subways could be a target of attack by those angered by these developments, according to Feng.

Proponents of tighter security use the example of an attack on March 1, 2014, at the Kunming railway station in Yunnan province where a gang wielding knives killed dozens of commuters and wounded more than a hundred others.

Authorities blamed “separatist forces from Xinjiang” province in China’s far west for the deadly attacks, saying the country was at risk of a terrorist insurgency. Four of the alleged assailants were shot dead by police at the scene.

Beijing’s subsequent crackdown in Xinjiang included mass detentions of residents from ethnic Muslim minorities. While that development was making world headlines last year, Beijing released a white paper in July, “China’s National Defence in the New Era”, that also referred to security threats from Taiwanese, Tibetan and Turkestan – or Uygur – separatists.

Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, said subway systems were among “the most attractive” targets for terrorists because an explosion could trap thousands of people underground in what could be a very complicated rescue operation.

Subway systems were also connected to underground critical infrastructure such as communication cables, sewage and electrical wires so an attack could have various peripheral implications as well, Luft said.

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“After [the] 9/11 [attacks in the United States], airport security improved dramatically, making attacks on aviation targets increasingly difficult to execute. It is only natural that terrorists would want to shift their sights to trains and subways where they could inflict mass casualties and cause fear and havoc,” he said.

“The cost of security screening to society in terms of time and loss of privacy is justified. A minor inconvenience which could prevent a catastrophe is not a lot to ask.”

Passengers go through security checks at the Dongzhimen subway station in Beijing. Photo: AFP

Chinese police say the subway security checks have deterred terrorists and prevented accidents. They say no major terrorism attacks have been reported in China in recent years, while the number of confiscated prohibited goods has been rising in two digits annually.

For those reasons, China was likely to forge ahead with modernising subway security, said Darrell West, vice-president and director of governance studies and founding director of the Centre for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

“China is very focused on security and has implemented facial recognition, surveillance and AI [artificial intelligence] systems to identify passengers,” West said. “This is part of its broader interest in keeping track of people and stopping attacks on its critical infrastructure.”

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Still, Raymond Wang, managing partner at Beijing law firm Anli Partners, warns of the potential for abuse of new technologies in security monitoring systems.

“It could be horrible when facial recognition is connected to a big database of personal biological, behaviour and transaction information so that every aspect of yours is exposed,” Wang said at a forum in Beijing in November where legal experts called for legislation to prevent abuse and infringements of people’s rights.

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said greater surveillance on public transport was all part of the party-state control system.

“It is doing so because it can and because it is tightening up Leninist system control by adopting newly available digital technology,” he said.

Sourabh Gupta, a policy specialist at the Institute for China-America Studies, an independent think tank in Washington, said the expansion in subway surveillance was driven first by the Communist Party’s desire to cultivate an image as the “assured protector and guarantor of the safety” of the Chinese people. It also stemmed from an emphasis on order and genuine security concerns.

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“Facial recognition technology is becoming a very handy and efficient tool at policing transport network hubs. And these hubs, in turn, generate a deluge of data that enrich the development of such technologies,” Gupta said.

“And given the as-yet embryonic uses of such technologies as well as Chinese companies’ leadership position in their deployment, I see no reason why China will not escalate and upgrade their use.”

Millions of commuters use Beijing’s subway system each day. Photo: AFP

It would cost billions of yuan to introduce and develop these surveillance technologies, but that was no obstacle, said Zeng Liaoyuan, an associate professor of information and communication engineering at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China.

“Money would not be a big problem and there would be little legal and limited social hurdles in doing so,” said Zeng, a member of several governmental AI programmes. Such security systems could be launched across the nation as long as local governments acted swiftly, he said.

While public surveillance and facial recognition technology have faced a backlash around the world, in China the general response is expected to be subdued, experts say.

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“The argument that this is necessary for their personal safety is likely to go much further in China than in liberal democracies, as Chinese people are indoctrinated from kindergarten to support the party and not worry about privacy or individual rights,” Tsang, at the University of London, said.

“Unless something goes wrong dramatically that catches public imagination, I would expect passive acceptance.”

Li, the cartoon designer, finally picked up his backpack from the X-ray machine and quickly made his way to the subway platform. He frowned at the mention of facial recognition at first, then he said: “If it could save time, I’d try it.”

“Every minute our information can be leaked from all kinds of applications,” he said. “What I say in social media, where and when I enter and leave the subway station, when I enter the office building, what I eat, what I watch … it wouldn’t bother me if they have more.”

Additional reporting by Echo Xie

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