China’s coronavirus campaign offers a look at the surveillance system

China's coronavirus campaign offers a look at the surveillance system

BEIJING – The coronavirus outbreak in China has given an unprecedented insight into how an extensive surveillance camera system works, as monitoring stations are renowned epidemic “war rooms” that help control people’s movements and stifle the illness.

China is trying to build one of the world’s most sophisticated surveillance technology networks, with hundreds of millions of cameras in public places and an increasing use of techniques such as smartphone monitoring and facial recognition.

This year, cities and towns across the country have used the system for what the government has called “a people’s war on the coronavirus.”

While authorities have primarily used mobile location data and ID-linked tracking apps to target people returning from abroad for quarantine, the camera surveillance system has played a crucial role, according to officials, state media and residents. .

The network has been used to trace the contacts of people confirmed to be infected with the virus and to punish companies and individuals who circumvent the restrictions.

“This is a war situation,” said an official with the last name Wang in Tianjin City, who was involved in tracking thousands of people linked to a coronavirus group in a department store.

“We must adopt wartime thinking.”

Despite the system’s high-tech ambitions, it depends heavily on many people seeing images on screens.

Known as “network members,” they sit in monitoring rooms or squint at camera network smartphones.

“This type of surveillance is much more humane than technological,” said James Leibold, an associate professor at La Trobe University in Australia, who investigated similar systems in China’s far west, Xinjiang.

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“Wartime restrictions”

Hikvision and Dahua CCTV security surveillance cameras face a street in Beijing, China.
Hikvision and Dahua CCTV security surveillance cameras face a street in Beijing, China.Reuters

State media, officials and local governments have reported on the system in action in the campaign against coronavirus.

In Donghan village in Hubei, the province where the coronavirus emerged late last year, network member Liu Ganhe saw six villagers gathering without masks, so he called authorities.

“Village cadres rushed to the scene to disperse the crowd and educate people,” the media said, praising the “war restrictions” that the system was able to enforce.

The county system cost 40 million yuan ($ 5.6 million) and included more than 4,400 cameras, he said.

Network member He Haijun saw the villagers gathering in Yongzhou County in Hunan Province, so he yelled at them through a village loudspeaker, state media reported.

“In two minutes, the villagers returned to their homes,” he reported.

The use of loudspeakers to break up the meetings was something residents of four villages in northeast China confirmed to Reuters.

Authorities have also installed cameras outside the homes of people who come from the Hubei virus zone and from abroad.

In Xiangtan, another Hunan city, the system was used to locate a man found with a high temperature in a mall who escaped on a motorcycle, state media reported.

Authorities tracked him down using cameras and sent public security officers to admonish him.

State media has released photos of officials looking at multiple screens at police stations. Others show volunteer staff browsing pictures and sharing clips on messaging apps.


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Hikvision and Dahua CCTV security surveillance cameras face a street in Beijing, China.

While surveillance may be rudimentary in some places, public knowledge of the system will likely help with enforcement.

“Bring this perception that someone is looking at you and that moderates people’s behavior and changes people’s thinking over time,” Leibold said.

“I think that will be one of COVID’s long-term lessons, that it really works.”

Details shared by residents and officials suggest that machine learning and facial recognition also played a role in big cities.

In Tianjin, 100 km (62 miles) from Beijing, officials went door-to-door looking for people linked to the department store outbreak in late February, using surveillance image data, officials and residents told Reuters.

Authorities determined the exact time that workers at the infected stores were exposed to customers, and then tracked the people captured in pictures in the store at the time.

Local authorities’ equipment acquisition documents, available on various websites and compiled by Reuters, provide details of the area’s surveillance system that includes facial recognition technology that can track a person’s movement for up to 90 days.

More than 9,000 people were quarantined.

“The pictures were discovered one by one through scans by public security cameras,” the Tianjin official told Reuters.

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