This is chapter 16 of Insights from the Future, a book I’m writing about technology, innovation, and people … from the perspective of the future. Subscribe to my newsletter mailing list to keep in touch and get notified when the book publishes.
January 26, 2025
Makeup sales have been banned in the seventh biggest city in China as authorities complain that “radicals and anti-social” elements are defeating facial recognition technologies.
Wuhan, home to 11 million people, is again under quarantine and curfew as the Coronavirus+ sweeps through the same city where it all began just a few years ago. But this time the quarantine has been personal, limited to individuals the government suspect of being sick with the new newest strain of Coronavirus, or those who have been in contact with them.
Image recognition uses AI to distinguish faces, and leaked information from China’s facial recognition labs suggests the country is able to identify 98% of its citizens with 99.9% accuracy.
Some have even suggested that the technology is so good that it can identify the sick, at least after 48 hours of incubation.
But AI has serious limitations, says Renee Champion, a researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
“Hackers and privacy activists have found ways to defeat facial recognition by applying facial makeup in bold, geometric patterns,” she told me today. “It’s the same technology that was responsible for last month’s killing of the Belgian prime minister.”
Martin Peters, the former Belgian prime minister, was killed when terrorists added stickers to street signs and his self-driving car drove head-on into a wall. AI visual recognition systems are relatively easy to fool when you know what they’re looking for, Champion says.
In Wuhan, travelers banned from leaving the city resorted to painting triangles and squares in black and white on their faces with makeup according to patterns that are briefly available via WeChat before authorities see and ban them. With the patterns on their faces, they can walk on the street without being recognized by the ubiquitous state cameras.
And, they can actually leave via high-speed trains and buses, which require mandatory facial recognition scans before boarding.
That may lead to more privacy and more freedom, but it’s also having huge health impacts.
The virus is now out of control, Chinese doctors are saying off the record. As a result, the government is having to abandon its policy of per-person curfews and quarantines.
The People’s Liberation Army has been called out en masse, and tanks are now blocking the major exits from the city. Makeup sales have also been banned, and cosmetics stores have been occupied by police and stripped of all their product.
It may be too little too late, as cases of Coronavirus+ have been reported in Beijing and Shanghai, and are starting to pop up internationally in London, New York, and Seoul.
“It’s hard to support a dictatorship,” Champion says, visibly upset. “But millions could die if China can’t contain this virus.”