Age of surveillanceChina says it has installed 2.75 million CCTVs since 2003

Published 10 August 2009

Government plans to expand the surveillance system into the largely neglected countryside, and marry it to a face recognition database

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.

AP reports that such systems have proved controversial in other countries, especially in Britain, which reportedly has 4.2 million surveillance cameras installed — 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.

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. Police say, however, that 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.