In 2017, a friend of mine moved into a new apartment in Beijing. After moving, an old lady stopped by to take a look. My friend didn’t think much of it at the time, but not long after she left, the police came knocking on his door.

This was no coincidence. This was the work of the so-called Chaoyang Masses. This group of elderly neighborhood volunteers named after Beijing's Chaoyang district is tasked with informing the police about suspicious behavior in exchange for rewards. And apparently China Telecom, one of the country's largest state-owned internet providers, wants people to know that 5G networks will make it even easier to snitch on their neighbors.

A new commercial from the telecom provider shows three neighborhood aunties idling on a street while a couple of suspicious-looking men walk together with a motorcycle. One of the eagle-eyed ladies takes out her phone and scans the men's faces, matching them with some kind of database. After the results are in, the ad’s heroine calls the cops with the tap of a button.

(Picture: China Telecom)

China Telecom pushed out the ad on WeChat and Douyin, the local version of TikTok, over the weekend.

China Telecom told us that the application shown in the ad isn't real and that it has no plans to develop such an app. The ad was meant to demonstrate the high speeds and low latency of 5G technology, a spokesperson said.

But while the ad is fiction, the concept of the Chaoyang Masses app is very real. The real Chaoyang Chunzhong app doesn’t have facial recognition, but it’s made it easier for Beijing city to harness the power of snoopy old ladies through neighborhood committees, the smallest political unit of the Communist Party. Launched in 2017, it enables users to report missing people, lost-and-found items, suspects and vehicles.

The promise of 5G is that apps like this become much faster, possibly enabling new capabilities. That’s why depictions of how 5G tech can be used have sent shivers down spines before.

In May, a promotional video circulating on social media platforms showed a Chinese policeman wearing 5G-connected AR glasses with facial recognition chasing down a suspect. It triggered a debate about how 5G connectivity enables surveillance.

Although the next generation of connectivity will make video streaming and playing online games much faster, it is also likely to bring 5G-connected surveillance cameras and make it easier to cross-check faces with police databases.

The 5G glasses featured in the police chase video bear the logo of another Chinese state-owned telecommunications giant, China Mobile, but the company hasn’t confirmed involvement with the ad. However, both China Mobile and China Telecom have been working on similar police surveillance projects, including geeky-looking 5G glasses.

The 230,000-strong Chaoyang Masses are often jokingly referred to as the “world’s fifth intelligence agency,” after the CIA, KGB, MI6 and Mossad. (Picture: Chaoyang Chunzhong app)

My friend didn’t wind up getting detained by police for changing apartments, but the public security volunteers have apparently had more high-profile successes. They were reportedly behind the arrests of more than a dozen Chinese singers and actors over substance abuse, including Jaycee Chan, son of martial arts film celebrity Jackie Chan.