A wit on Twitter recently coined the phrase “Chabuduo-wellian” to describe artificial intelligence’s security usages in China (chabuduo means half-baked).
The term was inspired by New York Times technology writer Paul Mozur’s recent experience at Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport. He had registered his fingerprints and his facial image and was trying to pass through the automated passport-control channel. The only problem: the machine couldn’t work out where his face was. In the end an official just waved him through
“Chabuduo-wellian. The combination of half-assed execution and Orwellian ambitions that characterises the state of Chinese surveillance at the moment,” was how he defined the newly coined term.
And as China rolls out life changing technology at a rate of knots many are asking how safe it is.
In a case involving the murder of a female passenger using Didi Chuxing’s Hitch sharing service earlier this month, several of the car-hailing app’s AI-based safety features failed to work.
Known as Didi Hitch, unbenknownst to many the service allowed drivers to leave notes for other drivers describing passengers. Typically, male drivers were using the function to rate female passengers’ looks. “Nice breasts,” said one. “Her stockings made me excited,” said another.
Given Didi Hitch allows normal drivers to pick up a passenger going the same way as them, such messages act as additional information that might persuade a driver to collect someone up or not.
But the function also allowed men to prey on women more easily. And this has been blamed for the murder of Li Mingzhu, a flight attendant. The 21 year-old flew into Zhengzhou airport on the night of May 5 and used Didi Hitch to find a driver going to the train station.
Her body was found a day later with multiple stab wounds. She had also been sexually assaulted. A few days later the body of her Didi driver and suspected killer Liu Zhenhua was also found drowned in a river. The police have said he committed suicide.
After Li’s killing many women have since changed their photo and gender to male on Didi apps.
“Why did the safeguards not work,” asked one angry netizen on Sina Weibo. “They talk about filming us in cars but they haven’t even installed an emergency button on the app,” posted another.
Didi has since suspended the Hitch function and is installing new safety features, including the possible option of video recording all rides. Earlier this week it said in future drivers would not be able to see the personal data of passengers using the carpooling service.
But where did Didi fail in protecting Li? Firstly, Liu was able to use his father’s driving licence to register for Didi Hitch. Second, he had previously been reported for verbal abuse against a passenger but Didi wasn’t able to make contact with him over the allegations, so he was allowed to stay on as a driver.
And thirdly, the facial recognition system that should have automatically activated on any journey after 10pm failed to kick in.
Didi’s initial reaction to the murder – releasing the details of the driver and offering a reward – also drew criticism, with some saying the company was interfering in police work.
After Didi bought Uber’s China business in 2016 it became the main player in the ride-sharing industry. The recent killing has also sparked a debate about legal responsibilities and whether Didi is a taxi provider or a service facilitator (the same argument that has dogged Uber around the world).
Many Chinese newspapers this week have been arguing that Didi does indeed bear some of the responsibility for what happened because it takes payment for its services, which include background checks, and the technology that is supposed to help keep passengers safe. Meanwhile some have also criticised Didi for running ads that conflate booking a car with going on a date – the Chinese word ‘yue’ has connotations of both.
Drivers are often portrayed as boyfriends in the promotional images, and in one ad a driver at the airport is shown holding up a sign saying “you have a short skirt, I have a warm car”.
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