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Duke professor takes his 'supercamera' manufacturing to China, sparking questions about the technology's use

Special to the Chronicle | Close-up of generic camera lens
Special to the Chronicle | Close-up of generic camera lens

It's a sweeping photo of downtown Durham. But you can see the boat shoes a man pedaling a bike is wearing and a poster hanging on a store window declaring love for public schools. Lettering and windows on a building blocks away are clear when enlarged.

This is not some hyperbolic virtual reality experience. It is the front page of the technology company Aqueti’s website, and the scene of Downtown Durham offers a taste of the crispness and detail captured by their “supercameras.” 

Such high-resolution capabilities are a double-edged sword. The same perfectly smooth pixels that can catch a speeding driver can also be used for inappropriate surveillance. 

It’s a conundrum David Brady, co-chair of Aqueti China Technology, Inc.'s board of directors, and Michael J. Fitzpatrick professor of photonics, acknowledges. The Duke professor has moved his high-resolution camera production to China, where he was able to establish a partnership and sell them commercially. Rights activists have criticized China’s use of cameras to surveil its citizens.

“China is a major technological center, and to work in technology you really have to work with China in some way or another. In the same way, our cameras can be used in good or bad ways,” Brady said. “That’s true of computers [and] all information technology products. It’s not possible, or really appropriate, for companies to control how their things are used.”

Brady, who specializes in computational imaging systems and works with Aqueti China Technology, Inc., worked under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant to develop a gigapixel camera. His work, which was considered basic research and was not classified or sensitive, was tested by the U.S. Navy. The prototype saw five times better than a human eye with perfect 20/20 vision.

In 2014 and 2015, Brady’s cameras were being used for broadcasting, and he needed to produce them in high volume. After looking for partners in Japan, Taiwan and China, he established a partnership in China to manufacture the cameras.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, said that Duke received the necessary approvals when Brady decided to commercialize the camera technology in China. They received a commodity jurisdiction from the State Department and made the proper disclosures to DARPA.

He established a lab at Duke Kunshan University, which was announced in January 2017. 

“First of all, my program does not work directly with the Chinese government at all, other than the fact that our laboratory in Kunshan is supported by the Kunshan local government,” Brady explained. “Basically our laboratory gets support from the Kunshan Education Bureau.”

The police department has installed some of the high-resolution cameras in public spaces in Kunshan, Brady said. China’s traffic problems kill about 700 people each day—a problem that could be solved by deploying the high-resolution cameras in traffic control. 

But traffic control is not all that China uses cameras for—other uses including recognizing a heroin smuggler and a fugitive murder suspect. A July article by the New York Times highlighted other implementations for its millions of cameras, the sum of which the news story billed as a “high-tech authoritarian future.” 

The country’s central government wants to expand its surveillance network to keep tabs on its 1.4 billion citizens, leveraging its technology industry to monitor its masses. China has four times more surveillance cameras than the United States has, the article said, with an estimated 200 million in total. 

A Wall Street Journal article outlined the process by which Brady's technology got to China. A federal U.S. grant helped fund research into the technology used for the gigapixel camera. Then he decided to commercialize the technology and take it to Asia to be manufactured. He noted that the specific camera being produced in China now is not the same as the one he was working on under that grant.

Brady says the cameras his company is producing are not being used in coordinated nefarious ways.

“The idea there is some connected, smart, 'Big Brother' project—our cameras are not really used for anything like that,” he said.

The cameras don’t go directly to the government, the professor explained.

“In terms of selling cameras in China, we don’t develop security systems. We don’t sell cameras directly to the government anyway. We sell cameras to distributors who sell to other companies,” Brady said. “The cameras are designed for public security, like train stations, football stadiums and roadways—like traffic cameras basically. Those are sold to a distributor to sell them to projects or local governments in China.”

Although the United States and China have a rocky relationship, Brady said that working with China on technological endeavors is imperative and that he hopes to see greater cooperation between the countries.

As for the role of high-resolution cameras, he insisted that the net impact is worth it.

“Cameras can be used in bad ways,” Brady said. “But in general, the impact of high-performance cameras in the world is very positive.”

Correction: Brady is the co-chair of Aqueti China's board of directors, not the president. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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