A driver in China got a fine for the smallest possible gesture: scratching his face.

A Chinese man had the misfortune of scratching his face as he was passing by a monitoring camera, which landed him a fine and 2 points off of his driver’s license. Image: Sina Weibo.

According to the Jilu Evening Post, the driver was only scratching his face — but his gesture looked like he was talking on the phone. An automated camera took a picture of him, and according to Chinese authorities “the traffic surveillance system automatically identifies a driver’s motion and then takes a photo”. Essentially, the AI operating the camera interpreted the gesture as the driver speaking on the phone, and fined him.

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The driver, who has only been identified by his surname “Liu” shared the photo on social media, humorously quipping:

“I often see people online exposed for driving and touching [others’] legs,” he said on the popular Sina Weibo microblog,” “but this morning, for touching my face, I was also snapped ‘breaking the rules’!”

After a struggle, he was able to cancel the fine, but this raises important concerns about privacy and AI errors, especially in an “all-seeing” state such as China. The country already has more than 170 million surveillance cameras, with plans to install a further 400 million by 2020. Many of these cameras come with facial recognition technology, and some even have AI capabilities, being able to assess a person’s age, ethnicity, and even gestures. Sometimes, though, they fail.

As the BBC points out, China’s social media was also buzzing with revolt regarding the state’s surveillance policies. China recently implemented a social credit system, intended to standardize the assessment of citizens’ behavior — and input from such cameras are key for the system.

“This is quite embarrassing,” one post commented, “that monitored people have no privacy.”

“Chinese people’s privacy — is that not an important issue?” another asks.

For now, this is indicative of a problem the whole world will have to deal with sooner or later: levels of both AI and surveillance are surging through our society, and we’re still not sure how to deal with them in a way that’s helpful but not intrusive.