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Chinese launch high-tech surveillance program

Can track people through data chips

SHENZHEN, China -- At least 20,000 police surveillance cameras are being installed along streets here in southern China and will soon be guided by computer software from an American- financed company to recognize automatically the faces of police suspects and detect unusual activity.

The program will start this month in a port neighborhood and then spread across Shenzhen, a city of 12.4 million people. Most citizens will also be issued a residency card fitted with a powerful computer chip programmed by the same company.

Data on the chip will include not just the citizen's name and address but also work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status, and landlord's phone number. Even personal reproductive history will be included, for enforcement of China's controversial "one child" policy.

Plans are being studied to add credit histories, subway travel payments, and small purchases charged to the card.

Security specialists describe China's plans as the world's largest effort to meld cutting-edge computer technology with police work to track the activities of a population and fight crime, but they say the technology can be used to violate civil rights.

The Chinese government has ordered all large cities across the country to apply technology to police work and to issue high-tech residency cards to 150 million people who have moved to a city but not yet acquired permanent residency there.

Both steps are officially aimed at fighting crime and developing better controls on an increasingly mobile population, including the nearly 10 million peasants who move to cities each year. But they could also help the Communist Party maintain tight controls on an increasingly prosperous population at a time when street protests are becoming more common.

"If they do not get the permanent card, they cannot live here, they cannot get government benefits, and that is a way for the government to control the population in the future," said Michael Lin, the vice president for investor relations at China Public Security Technology, the company providing the technology. Incorporated in Florida, China Public Security has raised much of the money to develop its technology from two investment funds in Plano, Texas: Pinnacle Fund and Pinnacle China Fund. Three investment banks, -- Roth Capital Partners in Newport Beach, Calif.; Oppenheimer & Co. in New York; and First Asia Finance Group of Hong Kong, -- helped it raise the money.

Shenzhen, a computer manufacturing center next to Hong Kong, is the first Chinese city to introduce the residency cards. It is also taking the lead in China in the large-scale use of law enforcement surveillance cameras, a tactic that would have drawn international criticism in the years after the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings.

But rising terrorism fears have lessened public hostility to surveillance cameras in the West. This has been particularly true in Britain, where police install cameras widely on lamp poles and in subway stations, and are also developing face recognition software.

Shenzhen already has 180,000 indoor and outdoor closed-circuit television cameras owned by businesses and government agencies, and the police here can link them on request into the same system as the 20,000 police cameras, according to China Public Security.

Some civil rights activists contend the cameras in China and Britain violate privacy entitlements contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

But they say large-scale surveillance in China is more threatening than such surveillance in Britain.

"I don't think they are remotely comparable, and even in Britain it's quite controversial," said Dinah PoKempner, the general counsel of Human Rights Watch in New York. China has fewer limits on police power, fewer restrictions on how government agencies use the information they gather, and fewer legal protections for those suspected of crime, she noted.

Although most countries issue identity cards and many gather a lot of information about citizens, China appears poised to go much further in putting personal information on identity cards, PoKempner added.

Every police officer in Shenzhen carries global positioning satellite equipment on his or her belt, which allows senior police officers to direct their movements.