Facebook’s Got Nothing On China, Which Is Trying To Harvest The Brain Data Of Its Workers

Ryan Pickrell | China/Asia Pacific Reporter

While other countries are expressing serious concerns over Facebook’s questionable data mining practices, China is trying to take data collection and surveillance to a whole new level.

China is building the “world’s biggest camera surveillance network,” constructing a surveillance state like nothing the world has ever seen before. China’s vast network of CCTV cameras took only seven minutes to find a BBC reporter in a rare test last December. But, millions of cameras are apparently not enough for China, which is reportedly is trying to get into people’s heads.

Workers at Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric and State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power reportedly wear caps equipped with lightweight, wireless sensors that relay brainwave data to a computer for analysis, the South China Morning Post reports. Analytical artificial intelligence systems can purportedly detect marked increased in anxiety. MIT Tech Review, skeptical of the technology, suggests it might work something like an electroencephalogram (EEG), assuming it works at all.

In addition to the hats equipped with sensors, cameras read facial expressions while other devices monitor body temperatures. Companies are apparently installing sensors under employee’s beds to track movements in the night to get a read on their sleeping habits.

The technology is said to be in use across China, in state-owned enterprises and the military. Cheng Jingzhou, an official overseeing the unusual surveillance program at State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power, told SCMP that the project has improved efficiency and boosted company profits by $315 million since it was introduced a few years ago.

The Hong Kong-based SCMP asserts that the technology is being deployed on an “unprecedented scale.” Chinese sources told SCMP that companies and employers can use this technology to better understand the needs of their employees. Chinese orkers reportedly took a little bit of convincing.

“They thought we could read their mind. This caused some discomfort and resistance in the beginning,” Jin Jia, an associate professor who researches brain science and cognitive psychology at Ningbo University’s business school, told reporters. “After a while they got used to the device. It looked and felt just like a safety helmet. They wore it all day at work.”

She explained the benefits of the program, noting that an emotionally-compromised employee could threaten the productivity and efficiency of an entire production line. “When the system issues a warning, the manager asks the worker to take a day off or move to a less critical post,” she said.”

There are some serious questions about this technology, which is still limited in its development. “Does it actually work? Yeah, probably not. Over-the-skin brain scanning through EEG is still very limited in what it can detect, and the relationship between those signals and human emotion is not yet clear,” a report in the MIT Tech Review explained, noting that the details in the SCMP article are “sketchy.”

There are also human rights concerns.

“It’s alarming that Chinese companies are deploying this surveillance technology in such a widespread manner,” Amnesty International’s China Researcher William Nee told CNET, adding, “The Chinese government does not allow independent trade unions, and so workers have little recourse if their employers want to use potentially invasive biometric surveillance technologies. Similarly, there are no safeguards to prevent the government from obtaining data collected from companies, and potentially using it to violate human rights.”

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