Surveillance Cameras in China: Privacy versus Security

PRIVACY

(Xinhua)  Chinese police to expand rural surveillance camera network.  August 10, 2009.

China's police authority is to gradually extend the installation of surveillance cameras in rural communities to provide better public security.

    The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) said in a statement on its website Monday that police had installed more than 2.75 million cameras in public areas across the country, most them in urban areas.  More than 268,000 surveillance and alarm systems had been installed in public areas to enable the police to fight crime around the clock, it said.  The MPS asked local police authorities to introduce more surveillance cameras in rural communities.

The surveillance systems would be linked to police stations, community police service posts and farmer security guards in rural areas to establish a comprehensive security network, the statement said. The statement said the installation of cameras should respect the wishes of the residents and police authorities should promote simple and cost-effective facilities.

Surveillance monitors in public domains such as roads, banks, stores and hospitals are increasingly common in China. Beijing, for example, has more than 265,000 monitors. The MPS statement said the number of monitors installed in the last six years exceeded the total of the previous two decades, without giving details of the numbers. Concerns over privacy protection are occasionally heard in China, but so far the government has not established a law or regulation on the issue.

(Associated Press)  China says 2.75 million security cameras installed.  By Christopher Bodeen.  August 10, 2009.

China's police say they have installed 2.75 million surveillance cameras since 2003 and are expanding the system into the largely neglected countryside.

The cameras are the most visible components of police surveillance and notification systems installed around the country, mainly in urban areas, according to a news release posted Monday on the Public Security Ministry's Web site.

Such systems have proved controversial in other countries, especially in Britain, which reportedly has 4.2 million surveillance cameras installed X or about one per 14 people. British police say the system has in fact done little to bring down crime.

No debate over privacy rights has taken place in China, where the ratio of cameras to people stands at only one to 472,000, and where tight communist political control and broad and intrusive police powers have long been the norm. The camera-to-person ratio is believed to be much higher in China's cities, with the capital Beijing having 265,000 cameras, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

But China's moves to combine surveillance cameras with face recognition software has raised concerns about how the equipment will be used. It is not clear how many surveillance cameras in China use such software.

The police news release said widespread camera installation began in 2003, but did not say whether that had made a dent in the crime rate or helped police crack more cases.

Thefts, burglaries and purse snatching have all more than doubled since the 1990s amid rising wealth inequalities and relaxed social controls, with about 4.75 million cases reported in 2007, the last year for which statistics were available. However, police say violent crime has declined in recent years with better enforcement of rules governing weapons and explosives.

The police news release said the Public Security Ministry had recently decided to expand the use of security cameras in the countryside, which is home to about 800 million of the country's 1.3 billion people. Such efforts should "put the safety of the broad masses of the people first and foremost," the release said.

While rural crime is not considered a major problem, the vast, largely impoverished countryside has long suffered from a lack of social services including schools, hospitals and community policing.

(Agence France Presse)  China has 3m security cams.  August 10, 2009.

POLICE in China have installed nearly three million cameras across the country since 2003 and will extend surveillance to rural areas, the Ministry of Public Security said on Monday.

'Since 2003... and up to now, over 268,000 alarm and monitoring systems have been installed in China, and more than 2.75 million cameras have been erected,' the ministry said in a statement on its website.

This 'exceeds the total of the previous 20 years.' According to the statement, the ministry urged authorities to expand coverage in cities and to extend security systems in the countryside.

Concerns over protection of privacy - virtually non-existent in the past when the state interfered in all aspects of people's lives - have emerged in China over the years.

(Daily Mail)  Revealed: Big Brother Britain has more CCTV cameras than China.  By Tom Kelly.  August 11, 2009.

Britain has one and a half times as many surveillance cameras as communist China, despite having a fraction of its population, shocking figures revealed yesterday. There are 4.2million closed circuit TV cameras here, one per every 14 people. But in police state China, which has a population of 1.3billion, there are just 2.75million cameras, the equivalent of one for every 472,000 of its citizens.

Simon Davies from pressure group Privacy International said the astonishing statistic highlighted Britain's 'worrying obsession' with surveillance. 'Britain has established itself as the model state that the Chinese authorities would love to have,' he said. 'As far as surveillance goes, Britain has created the blueprint for the 21st century non-democratic regime. It was not intended but it has certainly been the consequence.'

It is estimated that Britain has 20 per cent of cameras globally and that each person in the country is caught on camera an average of 300 times daily.




SECURITY

The other side of the coin is security.  The following is a current news story in which a crime is solved through surveillance video tapes.

The first point to note is that this story involves a pretty female village official Che Yating being assaulted in broad daylight in city of the Chengdu.  Therefore, this story has drawn a great deal of public attention in China.

Here is the original incident (via Cat898):

At around 1:40pm on August 10, 27-year-old female village official Che Yating was walking near number 111, on the West Third Section of the First Ring road in the city of Chengdu.  She was nicked by the electric tricycle driven by an unknown male.  Che Yating screamed in pain and uttered a vulgar phrase in the local dialect.  When the driver heard that, he quickly stopped and parked his tricycle near the bus stop next to the Green Field Furniture Store.  Then he grabbed Che Yating and said, "Pretty girl, why are you cursing me?"  The two quarreled and the man assaulted the woman, who would die as a result later at the hospital.  The man fled.

(CRI English.com)  Suspect in murder of Graduate Village Official Arrested.  August 14, 2009.

A man suspected of beating to death a 27-year-old female village official in Chengdu has been arrested thanks to some investigative work by netizens, sconline.com.cn reported on Friday. Police officers in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan province, arrested Li Bin, the suspect, Thursday afternoon. Li confessed to the crime after the first questioning.

The Chengdu municipal government will hold a press conference Friday on the latest developments.

At about 1:40 p.m. on August 10, 2009, Li Bin quarreled with the victim, Che Yating, on the third section of the West First Ring Road in Chengdu. He then assaulted Che, who died the next day after being sent to hospital.

A graduate of Sichuan University, Che Yating worked as a village official in Youfang Village, Xinxing Township. A recent national policy encourages many college graduates to work as village officials in rural areas. According to Che Yating's colleagues, she was a very hard worker and had planned to marry soon.

Hearing of Che's murder, some outraged netizens decided to help the investigation by making possible portraits of the murderer based on witness' descriptions. Netizen Ai Jiangshan was one of them. When he saw the portraits of the murderer posted on the Sichuan Online BBS, he printed them and went to the scene of the murder.

Ai asked one assistant at a nearby shop to point out the portrait that most resembled the murderer. Although the assistant could not remember the exact appearance of the murderer, she was able to point out one portrait that was most similar. Guided by nearby residents, Ai found another witness surnamed Liu.

According to Liu, the murderer was strong, 1.7 meter's tall and had a round face. In addition, Liu had noted the murderer's vehicle, a motorized tricycle. "It was old and dark blue. Because the color is not common for motor tricycles, I remembered it clearly," Liu said.

So far, the case is still under investigation.

Here are the sketches and illustrations from the netizens (via finance.fivip.com):

Eyewitnesses provided other characteristics of the perpetrator: According to one eyewitness, the perpetrator had a tatoo on his left arm.  He was not much taller than the female victim.  He was not powerfully built, but he had strong upper arm muscles.  Otherwise he could not have hit her so hard.  Therefore, it is likely the perpetrator engages in manual labor.  Many eyewitnesses also said that the perpetrator fled in an electric tricycle.  This tricycle does not have a hood.  Its body is painted red and there are two words ۥ ("self use") in white color on the back of the carriage.

(bbs123.blog.china.com)

More characteristics:  He speaks the Chengdu dialect; he may be a tricycle cab driver who finds customers in this neighborhood.  The murderer went against traffic towards the Old West Gate train station, which means that he may reside in the West Gate area.  The speculation that he is 95% likely to be a local Chengdu resident, because rural migrant laborers don't usually want to get into trouble. This person may be a security guard (without precluding the possibility that he was in the military).  His educational level is junior high school.  He is a loner with a volatile temper.  He should be from a single parent family living near Traffic Police Station Number 5.  He is likely to have a prior criminal record.  He is around 24 years old, 170cm in height and 65 kilograms in weight.

(Sohu.com)  The conventional way to solve this crime is to use these eyewitness accounts and look for the perpetrator.  In this case, the Chengdu police gathered the video tapes from all the surveillance cameras in the area.

Here are three of the screen captures:


2009 August 10 at 13:41:15 from camera 2 on the intersection of Yangxi Line and Mianbin Road:
The perpetrator and Che Yating began an argument.


2009 August 10 at 13:42:10 from camera 2 on the intersection of Yangxi Line and Mianbin Road:
The perpetrator assaulted Che Yating, but this is hidden from view by the trees.


2009 August 10 at 13:44:10 from the camera on the intersection of Yingmenkou Road and First Ring Road:
The suspect fled towards the southern end of this intersection after his assault on Che Yating.
This location is 500 meters away from the scene of the assault.  This meant that the assault took only a couple of minutes at most.

The police tracked down the movement of all blue-colored electric tricycles during that period in the general area, including roping off the streets to recreate the movements.  This tricylce had first fled westwards, then it went around the Yingmenkou traffic bridge and headed towards Xiangnan town along the Second Ring Road.  The tricycle disappeared near Xiangnan town which was in the suburbs of Chengdu and did not have the surveillance cameras.  So the police marked Xiangnan town as the center of their investigation and mobilized several hundred police officers to canvas the area.

On the morning of August 13, the militia police learned that: the resident Li Bin in the Hongpailou neighorhood of Xiangnan town had driven such a blue-colored electric tricycle.  Furthermore, his personal appearance was similar to those described by the eyewitnesses. The police did not find Li Bin at home but they found that tricycle parked downstairs, so they staked the place out.  On the afternoon of August 13, Li Bin showed up near the Qingshuihe Bridge near Second Ring Road and was arrested by plainclothes policeman.

When interrogated by the police, Li Bin admitted that he had a quarrel with Che Yating, assaulted her and then pled on the afternoon of August 10.  Li Bin is presently placed under arrest.

According to a relative, Li Bin is 33 years old, married with a six-year-old son.  At the time, Li Bin was working at an optical store near West Second Ring Road.  The electric tricycle was purchased by Li Bin's father to go on fishing expeditions and not for any taxi service.

Later on August 13, the police came to Li Bin's home and towed away an electric tricycle.

Does this tricycle look like the one in the sketch?

Here are the photos of the suspect Li Bin:

Does Li Bin look like any of these sketches?

Here is a television news report:

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According to the relative, Li Bin is introverted, obedient and well-tempered.  "He is not an ill-tempered person."  After the incident, he did not return home.  To his neighbors, Li Bin is taciturn and introverted.  Several years ago, he was a member of the neighborhood patrol.

When his co-workers at the optical store learned that Li Bin was the suspected murderer of the female village official, they were shocked.  According to them, Li Bin has been working there for two years.  "He is a hard worker who never arrives late."  His co-workers say that Li Bin has a calm demeanor and has never quarreled with customers.   The day of the incident (August 10) was a day off for Lin Bin.  On August 11 and 12, Li Bin came back to work as normal.  "There was nothing unusual."  Another co-worker mentioned a detail:  The workers heard over radio that Che Yating had died and started a discussion.  But Li Bin kept his head down and said nothing.


There are no public opinion polls about surveillance camera systems in China.  On one hand, the western view is that these surveillance camera systems are tools for totalitarian regimes to intrude upon citizen privacy and freedoms.  On the other hand, the surveillance camera systems have proven to be instrumental in solving a number of well-known crimes in China.  These conflicting views are not unique to China (as the case of Britain has shown). 

In the case of Hong Kong, the debate showed up over whether surveillance camera systems ought to be installed on the roofs of the buildings along the pedestrian mall in Mongkok.  On three occasions, person(s) unknown threw corrosive liquid into the street and injured dozens of people.  So is it going to be privacy versus security?