China has outdone itself when it comes to invading privacy, and this is by monitoring the brainwaves of workers.
This is done using a government-backed tech called an "emotional surveillance" system integrated into helmets or caps that workers wear in the workplace, as per a report by South China Morning Post. The data gathered by the system is used to look for signs of distress.
How it works is that lightweight sensors embedded in the helmets will wirelessly transmit brainwave data to a computer, which will then be analyzed by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to detect any signs of distress, anxiety or rage. This gives the companies the opportunity to act before emotional distress can cause a problem.
"When the system issues a warning, the manager asks the worker to take a day off or move to a less critical post," Jin Jia, an associate professor Ningbo University where one of the project's main research centers is located, told the publication. "Some jobs require high concentration. There is no room for a mistake," she continued.
She admitted that the introduction of the tech was met with "discomfort" and "resistance" since employees thought that their minds are being read, but they eventually got used to it.
The emotional surveillance system has worked wonders for Ningbo Shenyang Logistics, which uses the tech to train its new employees. The sensors are integrated into virtual reality headsets to simulate different scenarios in the work environment.
The manager, Zhao Binjian, said that the system has "significantly reduced the number of mistakes made by our workers" and has resulted to "improved understanding" between the employees and company.
The tech has also proved to be good for business. Since using the technology, Ningbo Shenyang Logistics has enjoyed an increase of 140 million Yuan in revenue in the past couple of years.
This is also the case for State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power, which primarily manages the power supply and distribution network to homes and businesses across the province of Hangzhou. The company enjoyed about 2 billion Yuan ($315 million) increase since the system was implemented in 2014.
The emotional surveillance system has been applied in China on "an unprecedented scale," as per South China Morning Post. The technology is being used in factories, public transport, state-owned companies, and even in the military to increase the competitiveness of its manufacturing industry as well as sustain social stability.
This is just the beginning, though. The tech is envisioned to evolve into something so much more such as a "mental keyboard" that will allow wearers to control a computer or mobile phone with their mind.
In the field of medicine, the emotional surveillance system is being used on patients to monitor their emotions and estimate mental status, which could help hospitals prevent potential violent outbursts.
The sensors work with a special camera that captures a patient's facial expression and body temperature, in addition to pressure sensors placed under the bed to monitor shifts in body movement.
China is also looking to introduce brain surveillance to airlines to ultimately prevent airplane accidents, which are deemed to be mostly caused by human errors.
Zheng Xingwu, a professor of management at the Civil Aviation University of China, explains that the tech will help determine whether a pilot is fit to fly.
"The influence of the government on airlines and pilots in China is probably larger than in many other countries. If the authorities make up their mind to bring the device into the cockpit, I don't think they can be stopped," he said. "That means the pilots may need to sacrifice some of their privacy for the sake of public safety," he added.
While all these benefits and advantages sound excellent, Beijing Normal University professor of management psychology Qiao Zhian fear that the brain surveillance could still be abused by companies in the same way the "thought police" did in George Orwell's novel "1984," who investigated and punished those who harbored personal and political thoughts deemed critical to the authorities. He argued that "The human mind should not be exploited for profit."
"There is no law or regulation to limit the use of this kind of equipment in China. The employer may have a strong incentive to use the technology for higher profit, and the employees are usually in too weak a position to say no," he said.
"The selling of Facebook data is bad enough. Brain surveillance can take privacy abuse to a whole new level," he went on to say, adding that lawmakers should do something about limiting the use of the tech before the technology is used for the wrong reasons.