Face scans now required in China when signing up for any phone service

In a controversial announcement, anybody buying a mobile phone in China will be required to submit to a face scan to verify their ID. This is mandatory, and came into affect on Saturday.
Black and white photo of mobile phone users outside in China
Buying a new mobile in China now requires a facial recognition scan. Image: Gauthier Delecroix via Flickr

The new legislation

As of 1st December 2019, anybody buying either a new mobile phone or contract in China is required to have a facial recognition scan. This is in addition to having to produce a national ID card.

On the face of it, this isn’t such a terrible idea. Fraud is a big problem and the concept of using biometrics to secure your device is nothing new. Most of us will be familiar with using facial scans or fingerprint recognition to unlock our devices.

However, this is not a security system to protect the data of your phone. It is to verify the identify of the person buying the phone in the first place. There is real concern that this is less about data protection, and much more about governmental control.

China vs dissenters

There is a difficult history here. The Chinese government has been known to take dramatic action to silence protestors.

Bloomberg has reported on facial recognition being used to track the movements of ethnic minorities. In Xinjiang, a largely Muslim area, the authorities have tested systems which target individuals. These then alert the authorities when those targeted ‘venture more than 300 metres (1,000ft) beyond designated ‘safe areas’.

Chinese police use LLVision smart glasses to identify individuals by using facial recognition technology. This helps them to identify criminals, but also those who have found themselves on the governmental blacklist. These individuals can include members of political opposition and protestors.

Buyer protection?

A big issue with this new mandatory requirement is that it doesn’t appear to introduce any added protection. Phone purchases have already required photo ID for some time.

The Telegraph reports of a commenter stating that, ‘Scam and sales phone calls still have not been stopped! Gathering citizen’s information excessively like this is a violation of people’s civic rights.’

In response, China says that they want to ‘protect the legitimate rights and interest of citizens in cyberspace‘.

The Economist published the below video explaining the extent of use of facial recognition in every-day Chinese life.

Facial recognition on safari

This isn’t the first controversy over use of facial recognition; China Daily reports that a lawsuit is currently pending. This is being brought by Guo Bing, a law professor at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University.

Bing is suing Hangzhou Safari Park for forcing season pass holders to have their faces scanned. This was instead of the previous policy where entrants went through a fingerprint scanning system.

Bing’s lawsuit is one of the first legal challenges against technological applications, and will be heard at a court in Hangzhou. I’d venture a guess that it will not be successful. Upholding Bing’s lawsuit would surely cast doubt on the legality of this newest legislation introduced by the government.

There was more controversy last week, when TikTok removed a video posted by a teenage user. This highlighted the mistreatment of Muslim groups in China and did not breach any platform rules. They have since apologised, putting this down to a ‘ human moderation error’.

Protestors in orange holding a sign saying Free the Uighurs
TikTok apologised after removing a post highlighting mistreatment of ethnic groups in China. Image: Flickr

Managing the population

We have all heard of ways in which the Chinese population is suppressed from freedom of speech – which is not a fundamental right in mainland China.

This is one of the biggest differences between the mainland and Hong Kong. We can see why so many protestors have taken to the streets to join demonstrations; because adopting mainland Chinese legislation would introduce a very different way of life for the people of Hong Kong.

Earlier this year China shut down the internet ahead of the anniversary of Tiananmen Square. This type of close down prevents posts or media being shared which might criticise their actions.

In 2017, they shut down a number of online entertainment sites, because these were not in keeping with national policy.

I struggle to see a real reason how this new requirement benefits the general population. With a dubious history of collecting personal data, and using this to monitor the movements of targeted citizens, it sounds like just another draconian control measure. I hope to be proven wrong.

Would you be comfortable providing a facial recognition scan when you buy a new phone? Do you think there could be a genuine improvement in security as a result? Let us know your thoughts!

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