Big Brother Or Dumb Brother? Bus Drivers In Beijing Are Forced To Wear “Emotional Monitors”

Humans aren’t always great at respecting each other’s privacy. However, common sense says there’s a clear boundary when it comes to the thoughts in one’s own head and the feelings in one’s heart.

For bus drivers in Beijing though, it seems that’s no longer the case. These professional drivers are now being asked to wear emotional monitors while on the job, raising concerns from both legal and privacy advocates. But the devices aren’t really anything more than workout monitors, and whether they can actually make good on their Orwellian promise remains to be seen.

In Your Head, In Your Head!

The monitoring wristbands have been rolled out to some of Beijing’s long-distance bus drivers. Credit: Cypp0847, CC-BY-SA-4.0

When George Orwell wrote 1984, it was only 1949. However, he was able to foresee a world in which surveillance was omnipresent and inescapable. He also envsioned the concept of thoughtcrime, where simply contemplating the wrong things could get you in serious trouble with the authorities.

As we all know, Orwell was way off – these predictions didn’t become reality until well into the 2000s. In the latest horrifying development, technologies now exist that claim to be able to monitor one’s emotional state. Now, China’s transportation sector is rushing to push them on their workforces.

Long-distance bus drivers in Beijing are now being told to wear electronic wristbands when on the job. These wristbands claim to be able to capture the wearer’s emotional state, monitoring it on behalf of the employer. The scheme was the idea of the Beijing Public Transport Holding Group. The state-run organization claims the technology is intended for the safety of the public, and a trial of the wristbands began in July this year.

The technology is relatively crude. It doesn’t scan brainwaves or interface directly with the individual on a conscious level. Instead, it monitors the driver’s vital signs much like a common smartwatch. The wristbands capture body temperature, heart rate, blood oxygen levels, and respiratory data. They also reportedly measure blood pressure, exercise levels, and the user’s sleep patterns.

All that data is then processed to generate an idea of the wearer’s emotional state. The wristbands can be monitored in real-time by the organization to keep track of its employees on a live basis.

Legal experts have questioned the value of the monitoring scheme. Issues concern the validity of the conclusions drawn by the wristbands, and the impact this could have on employees. Those that routinely get rated as “angry” or “upset” by the wristbands could be discriminated against or lose their jobs, whether or not their emotional state was accurately assessed or even impacting their work. With something as subjective and malleable as emotional states, it’s also difficult to see how a machine could reliably draw conclusions.

As for the data, it’s also unclear how it would actually be used in practice. If a crash occurs and an employee’s wristband reports they were “agitated” or “sad,” how does that feed into what happens next? Many of us may grow annoyed and frustrated in bad traffic, after all, and that means absolutely nothing if another driver happens to cause an accident with our vehicle. It’s hard to imagine the technology being used in anything but a punitive manner.

A Worrying Trend

Whether or not the scheme makes any sense doesn’t seem to matter in the broader scheme of things. The wristbands fit an overwhelming theme in modern Chinese society – that of overwhelming, all-pervasive surveillance. The country already runs “social credit” systems that rate citizens based on their criminal history, economic activity, and public behaviour. Fall afoul of these, and you might suddenly find it hard to apply for government permits or even travel via rail, sea, or air. These monitoring wristbands are just another expansion of the surveillance that already takes place in China.

Other countries should hardly consider themselves free of such concerns, however. Warehouse employees around the world are routinely monitored for their behavior, and can be penalized for working too slowly or taking too many bathroom breaks. Workers on apps like Uber and Doordash similarly have their every action monitored, ranked and critically analyzed. Again, penalties are swift for poor performance or behaviour. Indeed,  examples are too numerous to mention, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.

Corporations and governments are often eager to implement such technologies as soon as they become available. In the absence of robust privacy protections for the individual, there’s always a great risk of these technologies infringing on one’s personal liberties. In most countries, these simply don’t exist. Of course, sometimes compliance is enforced not with threats to one’s job or liberty, but in softer ways, too. It’s all too common that our access to social media, streaming services, or web searches is contingent on allowing corporations to collect great dossiers of information on our daily activities.

In the case of these wristbands, the threat isn’t even from new advanced technology. The system is only capable of collecting the same data as something like a typical smartwatch, and it’s paired with a emotion-matching algorithm that’s sophisticated or silly depending on your point of view.

The real threat is the fact that people’s livelihoods are being put at risk based on spurious measurements and maths from a wristband they have little choice in wearing. It’s sets a poor precedent for those who appreciate that one’s own body, mind and soul should be a private place.

Banner photo: “Female Beijing bus driver” by Ole Bendik Kvisberg.

Thumbnail image: “Beijing bus” by Michael Wood

64 thoughts on “Big Brother Or Dumb Brother? Bus Drivers In Beijing Are Forced To Wear “Emotional Monitors”

  1. “Whether or not the scheme makes any sense…” Doesn’t have to make sense in places like China. All about control. Very sad that a society like this even could take root and the people can’t do anything about it. Mind boggling. But we see it creeping into our society under the guise of ‘greater good’, or ‘if it saves just one life’, or ‘save the planel’ or … etc. Slippery slope indeed and need to stay vigilante and make sure we vote the right people in office who haven’t fallen for all the socialist schemes out there (including the climate control religion).

    1. The irony is thick here. You sound like you back the people who are actually trying to pull this stuff in the US. They’re the ones that endlessly scream about the red scare. Ever hear of McCarthyism?

      1. Why not engage in discussion on the topic instead of resorting to snark and ad hominem? Power grabs by authoritarian governments are always sold to people as needed for their safety and security. Why do you think they can get away with this type of thing in China? Its because a significant % of people there have been convinced that its “for the greater good”. Restrictions on speech, movement, gathering and association are not conducive to a free society no matter how “evil, dumb and bad” the “opposition” is.

    2. Not only the climate control religion but also in connection with the Covid virus: We were forced to wear this very uncomfortable masks with no evidence that they are good for anything.

    1. I was thinking something similar:

      “Sir, the new monitors are showing 100% of our drivers are either sad or angry.”
      “That can’t be right…”
      “Well sir, actually…”

      1. “Did you try… at least saying ‘have a nice day’ to them? After all you are the bus driver.”
        “The last time I did, the answer was: ‘don’t you dare say that at the cemetery bus stop!'”

  2. It could catch people who are overworked or ill – but unless the smartwatch thingy has a proper chest band type of sensor it’s not even going to measure your pulse accurately.

    Mine does kinda ok at rest pulse, but when exercising it’s counting 15…25 beats too low, and the blood pressure sensor jumps from normal to heart attack and back between subsequent measurements because it’s literally just guessing for the show of it. The pedometer shows whatever it wants, and the sleep time counter is always off by hours. Made in China. I only use it for showing alerts and messages so I don’t have to dig the phone out every time it buzzes.

      1. It is a common problem with the camera-and-LED type of smart watches. They are not quite accurate, and the method of measuring blood pressure is especially not. It actually infers the blood pressure by assuming that higher pressure causes the veins to expand more, which does not measure the absolute blood pressure in the first place – only the difference between diastolic and systolic pressure with no good baseline to relate the measurement to. That’s why it is merely guessing. The estimation of blood volume in the veins is sketchy at best, and made worse by cheap cameras and people wearing the arm strap loose etc.

        Some models do better, some worse, and I would expect a cheap mass produced version to be basically garbage – which they are.

      2. The question is, will they buy the bus drivers thousands of nice and accurate, expensive smart watches costing hundreds of dollars each, or will they just make a ton of $25 garbage watches like mine and call it a day?

  3. “But the devices aren’t really anything more than workout monitors, and whether they can actually make good on their Orwellian promise remains to be seen.”

    A modern day polygraph. Problem isn’t the tool, but what all the false alerts will do to a career.

    1. That’s why I won’t take a 10% rate cut for an insurance black box, every instance of “hard braking, accelerating or swerving” it would have recorded would be me saving them $100,000 in avoiding things.

      1. I’ve suffered from epilepsy since I was 16, yet without any issues I managed to obtain a driver license when I was 19. Now I’m 35 and I still drive my car every day even though every couple of days I can feel my hands tingling during morning commute. I remember only 5 or 6 times since 2010 when I had to pull over, park and wait out pretending I’m on the phone because I felt like I can lose it at any moment.

        I know it’s morally dubious but either I keep driving a car and enjoy a career of industrial automation engineer or admit I shouldn’t drive a car, bicycle or even an electric scooter, become unemployed and live on… I think it’s about $200 a month disability benefit in Poland. As Niko Bellend from GTA IV would say: “life is tough”.

        On the plus side, once the civil war in Eastern Europe spills over to NATO countries I won’t be drafted because epilepsy is instantly “category E – not fit for duty in times of war”.

          1. You must be a kid.
            Have you never before seen a software project holding at 90% done for _years_?
            ‘AI’ changes nothing, except making debugging impossible (how do you debug a neural net training dataset?). It will never be done. Doomed.

          2. Then he hasn’t been paying attention.

            The floating 90% done is a sure sign of a failed software project. They are breaking things at the same rate they are fixing things. Time to restart with a new approach, team and better testing.

            I’ll grant that the 90% done and holding is most common in government work and is often consultants milking the clueless. But it’s happened in all fields, all you need is an MBA in charge and ‘good to go’. It’s EDS’s goto move. HP enterprise now, but still the same steaming pile of C GPA CS grads. Where the dot Indians learned the trick. Needfullamole for fun and profit.

  4. Remember, while it might only give a crude emotionalstate reading, that can become very dangerous if paired with time information such as when a person is listening to a dictator’s speech. They’ll be hunting down anyone who doesn’t make themselves happy and overjoyed at their dear leader’s every pronouncement…

  5. One sentence states that they are expected to wear the bands while on the job, and another mentions monitoring sleep patterns. Are the drivers expected to sleep on the job?

  6. This reminds me of an offer from a health insurer who would give me a ‘discount’ if I used their fitness tracking app and device. I told them where to place their offer using some traditonal Australian abuse.

  7. There is an absolutely insane amount of information that can be extracted from just accurate position of a smartphone over time, and correlate this information with known places (bars, restaurants, workplaces) events (time of the day, meetings, sport events, concerts), and people (also reporting their location). Far beyond what you did with who and how.

  8. Oh great, another “mind reading” technology that can be used to control the masses. The promises here sound like echoes of the claims of another discredited technology, polygraphy.

    1. That’s the whole idea with Big Brother — to control the masses. Even this site practices mind control when it deletes posts it doesn’t like…. We all have to beat to the same drum … or else.

    2. Don’t let them put a brain-machine interface inside you no matter what. Maybe if you’re missing a natural sense or need correction for epilepsy, but that’s about it. The rest of the use-cases for that stuff goes straight off into nightmare land… and there is no way to uninvent it.
      It is coming, and it will be marketed based on convenience, and people will make fun of you for being backwards, and then it will grow and evolve and mess up the entire species again.

  9. just say no…

    when the scammers learn to gain access;
    then we’ll reeeally see who is smart and who is “smart”
    some employers already so this with smartphones,
    minus the biometric data. a lot can be gained with the combination of microphone, camera, browser-hijack, and a vehicle-tracker

    1. Some would be excited while checking something on the web and later active in toilet.
      Also sure that there would be a market where someone would wear other peoples watches while his collagues are smoking… or in toilet 5th time and it’s not even 12 ;)

  10. There is a potentially a good side to this
    If the system discovered that drivers are being overwhelmed in peak hours, then the government may mandate more buses to cope with the workload at those times
    And while I hesitate to bring it up there may be some correlation between mestrual cycles and how prone female bus drivers are to accidents at certain parts of the cycle, if a correlation is found maybe female drivers could end up with three extra days off a month
    Not to mention the drivers who turn up to work still hungover from the night before, they should be “corrected” they are a danger to themselve and other, why not test for it, whereas the responsible drivers shouldn’t have any problems with it
    God knows I could have used a system like this in some of the places I’ve worked in to detect the borderline antisocial personalities I’ve worked with?

  11. It’s amazing that you Americans are worried about this technology abuse, but at the same time, wear a Google Watch (or Apple Watch, or even a Xiaomi MiBand) that’s 100% connected and uploading your information to “your” big brother that is Apple Fit or Google Fit or Xiaomi Fit. In USA, as long as you are not informed that your health data is already used to pro-actively classify/train/sort you, it’s ok. But China just disclose this information, and then, it’s not ok ?

    1. The difference is that China wants to require this of all bus drivers, with results directly tied to each person. In the US, nobody is forcing people to use the devices. Google might be using it to target advertising, but they aren’t using it to decide whether or not to send you to concentration camp for “reeducation.”

      1. We do know the makers of the wearable devices are selling your data. What we don’t know is who is buying it.

        [quote]As wearables become part of patients’ treatment plans, device makers will look to make money by selling data generated by those wearing the devices, for example, selling data produced by the devices to insurance providers. Juniper forecasts that service revenues of this nature will reach $855m by 2023.[/quote]

        We also know some employers already charge higher insurance rates for tobacco users. Some employers have offered free step counters to employees to encourage better health (not that long ago our division was encouraging “step contests” between teams.) And using your data to charge a premium for unhealthy behavior is certainly not impossible technically. So there is literally no way of knowing if they are or aren’t already doing so.

        I think we can agree that having a government enforced “mood ring” policy and an invisible market driven “lazy penalty” harvested from stolen data are both awful trends. And it’s not a contest where anyone “wins” because their system sucks slightly less.

    2. When my Samsung Galaxy 5S was new, I used the heart rate monitor function and recorded my exercise, weight and blood pressure.
      Then I installed an Android update, which then wanted me to accept new terms allowing Samsung access to that information.
      I never used the heart rate function, or recorded health info again on that phone.

      1. Hook up ADB shell on your PC and debloat the Samsung apps off your phone. I took off all Samsung store and Gear apps. Phone runs better too.

        Apparently some app squatters are naming harmful apps after packages you may have installed from github, Samsung will helpfully ‘update’ you into a malicious app.

        You do not need to be root. I also remove Facebook, if I need it I go to the website.

    3. If the data from my smart device ends up released or used illegally, I am about twenty minutes from the corporate headquarters, their bedroom communities are the places where I grew up, and I can kick their assess as required. Allegedly, that data is private, but while I’m hopeful I’m not convinced. Until I can go fully off grid and live the way I want to, I’m already compromised, so I might as well get my own copy of my health data.

  12. The 1984 aspect aside, there seems to be a total dismissal of the idea that the information gathered could be used to detect emotional states.

    While a one-to-one correlation between a specific point in time and a specific emotional state, it may be possible to process trends and events. Now this may all be a farce to gather data in order to build an AI that can detect such trends and events. The reasoning is that if the buses are equipped with security cameras that focus on the driver (especially their face) then their approximate emotional state can extracted using computer vision then feed that into the AI. The only reason to do this is if you wanted to make a large-scale deployment.

    HaD shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the feasibility of detecting emotional states tangentially.

    1. > specific point in time and a specific emotional state

      Emotions are not possible to describe with numbers. The best method for telepathy we seems to have is use words and try to describe the best we can in terms that can be received by someone else.

      The dissonance between, on one side the few words on a pie chart that describes the emotional state of the driver out of these sensors, and on the other side, what results of the complex mix of everything that lead to this precise moment of life, all memories, unreachable unconscious thoughts, everything else I do not understand, and everything else nobody will ever understand.

      The problem is that this might be driven to: “why were you in a bad emotional state the day of the accident? Did that affect the way you drive?”. What if the answer is “I felt like something terrible was about to happen and that I could do nothing to prevent it.”?

      Although, if it permits to allow car insurances, a significant expense, to be paid lower if this kind of system is on, good luck with arguing with the bus company.

    2. If you werent already aware there are system for monitoring drivers faces looking for things like smoking, being on the phone, reading a map, sleeping… etc
      if you’ve ever been on a Chinese road you’ll understand why its’ nothing but a good thing.

  13. In column A, we have supposed omnipresent emotional monitoring for… reasons?

    In column B, we have a mistranslation of a driver attention state monitoring system (that is novel in not based on an inward-looking camera).

    1. Good point! We have this kind of system in many cars, maybe the one we drive now: attention monitoring with a beeping alarm whenever the attention is going low.

      The elevator speech could look much less dramatic: “make sure the bus schedules permit the drivers to stay in shape while driving, by collecting statistics on time of day with degraded attention while driving, based off voluntary [read: mandatory to get the job]. Surprisingly, $HOUR reveals to be a much more troublesome moment than late in the night […]” [1]

      That being said, once widespread, it is easy to abuse of this kind of metric collection system into a mass surveillance system, from either the state or bus company.

      [1]: example invented

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