QUANTech #27: tracking, China and Face recognition


Digital information technology is increasingly becoming entrenched into the fabric of our society, and it will not be long before we all permanently connect via the Internet. As the extensive digitisation of society is set to radically change practically all aspects of our lives, QUANTech (#QTech) aims at helping you stay in the know about the rapidly changing landscape of both organisations and society alike in the digital age.

#QTech is brought to you by Denys Malengreau (@D_MLG), digital advisor to QUANT.

Reading time: 8-10 minutes

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: tracking, China and Face recognition

This week is very Google-ish. The Associated Press published a research-based article which echoed, stating that Google has been tracking users beyond the 'turn on/off' options. Nothing very surprising some will ironically claim. This is what Mark Warner, a US senator of Virginia highlighted, explaining that it is « frustratingly common » for technology companies « to have corporate practices that diverge wildly from the totally reasonable expectations of their users. »

Facts aside, here is « how to find and delete where Google knows you’ve been », the AP explained.

This week is also very Chinese. Talking 5G, we have learned that China has outspent the US by $24 billion in 5G infrastructure since 2015. In three years, China has built 350,000 new 5G cell sites, while the US has built fewer than 30,000, according to a Deloitte's study findings.

As « countries that roll out 5G early will have a head start creating and selling a wide range of technology products and services » such as self-driving cars, it is no surprise that the Trump administration considers the development of 5G a national priority overseas.

And to make it clear that China’s boom is everything but rubbish (numbers you need if you doubt it), Tech in Asia also reported this week that China startup funding is on pace to smash records in 2018. The story backs a previous July report from the South China Morning Post which announced that China surpassed North America in attracting venture capital funding for the first time, in the second quarter of 2018.

In this week’s news, a new open-source tool called 'Social Mapper' caught my attention. The program, designed for security researchers, uses facial recognition to track subjects across social networks. As described by The Verge, « the system automatically locates profiles on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other networks based on a name and picture. »

On the same topic, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games announced that face recognition will be pioneered at Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. The technology will solely be used to verify the identity of athletes, officials, other staff members and media representatives. Not the public.

IN SHORT (reading time)

 A small team of student AI coders beats Google’s machine-learning code. (4m)
 AI can spot an eye disease with 94.5% accuracy. (1-2m)
 Tesla is seriously considering going private (4-5m)… and a Saudi fund could help them doing so (6-7m).
 Facebook merges Internet projects under « Connectivity. » (2m)
 Facebook joins forces with LaLiga to livestream matches in the Indian subcontinent. (3m)
 Facebook buys Vidpresso’s team and tech to make video interactive. (6-7m)
 Magic Leap’s headset is real, but that may not be enough. (16-20m)
 Maduro’s Petro cryptocurrency will be an official currency in Venezuela on 20 August. (3-4m)
 West Virginia to introduce mobile phone voting using blockchain for midterm elections. (4-5m)
 WeWork gets another $1b from SoftBank. (3m)
 Shenzhen becomes pilot city for blockchain-powered WeChat invoices. (2-3m)

IN CONTEXT: Google in China

We sometimes skim through news with little hindsight to truly weigh what certain stories mean and how impactful what they convey may be. I quickly mentioned Google’s plans to return to China in last week’s QUANTech with literally one sentence evoking it. The story originally came from leaked documents reviewed by The Intercept, which published an article about it early August. Given the whole context, the story is worth looking at as headlines may miss the broader perspective while dealing with a bunch of stories daily.

As put by TechNode, « Google is not planning a return to China. Google has been returning to China. » Timeline-wise, Google operated in China between 2006 and 2010 before leaving due to attacks to their systems for surveillance purposes and free speech limitation. At the time, the Chinese government had been « crystal clear » throughout their discussions that « self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement. »

It has been over 8 years since Google left China. Meanwhile, the company’s leadership structure has markedly changed, and China has grown to indisputably be by far the world’s biggest Internet population (722 million) at a national level, hence the whopping business potential knowing data is the new oil. Google’s newly appointed CEO Sundar Pichai (2015) has quickly made it clear that it wanted to go back and serve China in the future. Last December, he reportedly traveled to China to attend a private meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s top foreign policy adviser Wang Huning. Shortly after, the company announced that it was launching the Google AI China Center in Beijing.

Google’s return to China with a censored search app whose project is code-named Dragonfly has reportedly been in the making since spring 2017. Nothing new unlike what reports suggest. What is interesting to observe is how new the breaking news appeared to both media outlets and thousands of Google employees alike.

Among the 88.000 or so employees at Google, only a hundred had knowledge of the new censored search app project, which caused backlash when disclosed earlier this month. Memes such as one showing « a Chinese internet user searching for information about the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, only to receive a result saying that the atrocity was a myth. » are shared internally at Google. Ethics-wise, an article published on The Conversation’s website put the move in contrast with some interesting thinking:

« It would be highly hypocritical of Google to take advantage of the values that have allowed it to grow to the behemoth it is today in much of the world – democracy, freedom of speech, personal autonomy == and then drop these when moving into the Chinese market. Instead of being a values-driven company, it seems from this move that it is purely profit-driven. »

Concerns and ethics aside, Google’s return to China should be observed with a broader perspective as a very insightful « Google in China: 5 winners, 4 losers, and 3 questions » article from TechNode puts it.

Google’s rapproachment to Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent whose go-to-everything WeChat app is (almost) the Internet for hundreds of millions of Chinese netizens totally makes sense. Tencent’s weakness? Search and news, both mastered by Google in the West. Google’s help would be of great help for Tencent to compete with search competitor Baidu and popular ByteDance-owned —ByteDance is the world’s most valuable unicorn (a company worth at least $1 billion)— news aggregator Toutiao or Jinri Toutiao.

If the West’s GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) are often compared to China’s BATX (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi), it has become ever more noticeable that both powerhouses Alibaba and Tencent have left the « B » and the « X » in the dust even though both obviously remain relevant in the Middle Kingdom. Looking at everything Alibaba and Tencent do and how they compete with their American counterparts valuation-wise are a clear indication. Given that on its part Alibaba’s weakness lies into social, closer ties with Facebook would make sense on the other hand.

Facts and signs point to a Google-Tencent competing with a Facebook-Alibaba in China with a potential for both Chinese tech behemoths to potentially trigger activities outside of mainland China through such partnerships. By opening doors (at a cost) to Western companies, China shows the world that it is open to business, yet it remains to be seen what it will eventually lead to as tensions heat up between the US and Chinese administrations.

For now, if Google receives the final green light from the Chinese government and feel confident enough that their search engine will offer a better option than the country’s main rival Baidu (whose CEO Robin Li says they're ready to compete), we are likely to see this new app materialise.

Talk soon!

Denys Malengreau