The Google Glass paranoia is coming true in China

Chinese police are using a Google Glass-like wearable computer to spot criminals, with the notoriously intrusive authorities outfitting security teams with facial recognition tech. The headsets are being deployed among railway police in Zhengzhou, capital of China's Henan province. Each has a crowd-facing camera, and is linked with a police database.

Although the system resembles Google's Glass at first glance, the technology is different. Like Glass, the eyepiece is suspended above the right eye, in an oversized eyeglass-arm which also bears a camera. However, unlike Google's ill-fated wearable, the eyepiece itself is not transparent glass.

It's also seemingly tethered to a handheld tablet, which can show the results of the database searches. The system is being used to verify the identities of passengers, but also flag suspected criminals, Sixth Tone reports. A card reader on the tablet can be used to check for falsified identity cards.

Trials of the system began earlier this year, the People's Daily reports, in the run up to Spring Festival. That's a heavy time for public transit in the country, as Chinese workers return home for the lunar new year. According to the report, the Zhengzhou police have already used the wearable to catch seven people, variously accused of human trafficking, hit-and-run incidents, and more. A further 26 people accused of faking their identification documents have been caught by the system.

China has invested heavily in facial recognition, seeing it as a key element in tracking its sizable population. One project involves documenting the unique facial elements of every citizen, with the promise of an AI system that can sort through and identify an individual in under three seconds. Other implementations of the technology have been used for more mundane purposes, like tracking people stealing toilet paper from public restrooms.

Clearly, therefore, turning police into roving face-recognition cameras is a fairly incremental step in China's surveillance. Nonetheless, it's likely to be cited by privacy activists as another example of the government trampling on individual rights in the name of effective policing. Although currently the system is hunting down potential felons, it's not hard to imagine police forces using the same technology to identify and detain political activists who disagree with the Chinese government's policies, or even journalists seeking to document human rights offenses and more.

Untempered facial recognition was among the concerns Google Glass faced by a wary public, when the head-mounted computer launched in 2013. Several venues banned the wearable after complaints from customers that they were uncertain if Glass early-adopters were filming them with the headset, though Google itself didn't actually build face-recognition into the system. That didn't stop third-party modifications, mind, and indeed police forces – including Dubai's road traffic enforcement – experimented with outfitting officers with the customized technology.