Chinese University Tests Facial Recognition System to Monitor Attendance and Students' Attention to Lectures

A Chinese university has defended its move to set up a facial recognition system in selected areas on its campus so it can keep tabs on its students.

In a pilot project, China Pharmaceutical University in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, has set up cameras that use facial recognition software. The system will be used at the university gate, as well as at entrances to the dormitory building, library, lab, and two classrooms.

Xu Jianzhen, director of the university's library and information centre, told news website that the technology can make it easier for managers "to track their students."

"Besides attendance, the system installed in the classroom can provide surveillance of the students' learning, such as whether they are listening to the lectures, how many times they raise their heads, and whether they are playing on their phones or falling asleep," Xu told the news website, according to the South China Morning Post.

Facial technology
A surveillance camera is shown as part of facial recognition technology test in Berlin, Germany in this illustrative image. A university in eastern China has installed a facial recognition system at its entrance to monitor students' attendance. Steffi Loos/Getty Images

The university will use the pilot project to decide whether to expand the system to all classrooms.

"The school is taking action to cut down on students skipping class, leaving classes early, paying for a substitute to attend classes for them and not listening in class.

"A class room is a public place, so this system will not lead to a violation of personal privacy," Xu said.

However, the South China Morning Post reported that social media users said that the move had chilling overtones, with one user of Weibo writing: "What kind of talent are they trying to cultivate? I've never seen such a method."

Another wrote: "If this system was being installed in Europe or America, they'd be sued and the school would have to close down."

China's use of high-tech surveillance has been controversial. In May, a house intelligence committee hearing raised concerns about China's use of surveillance technology to control its population.

"Citizens of China today live their lives bounded by the guardrails of ubiquitous surveillance and pervasive influence operations—all in the name of the Chinese Communist Party's desire to retain political control," Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in the hearing.

Last month, the technology was raised in connection with the Hong Kong protests, in light of the use of so-called "smart lampposts."

During street action last week, a group of protesters hiding their faces with umbrellas, cut down a smart lamppost over worries such technology would be used for surveillance by Chinese authorities, Australia's ABC News reported.

The semi-autonomous Chinese city plans to install about 400 of the smart lampposts in four urban districts.

Last week, one of the leading providers in the field of face recognition, Megvii, filed papers for a listing on Hong Kong's stock exchange, the BBC reported.

Megvii is the maker of the Face++ system and is one of the country's best known artificial intelligence (AI) companies.