Facial Recognition Creeps Further into China

New mobile users to be subject to face-scans

Telecom operators in China are now required to collect face scans when registering new phone users at offline outlets in a move that makes facial recognition checks more ubiquitous.

Chinese authorities have invested heavily in facial recognition technology recently, as part of measures to keep close tabs on the population (see Smart City or Surveillance Hell).

In September, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued a notice on “safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of citizens online”, laying out rules for enforcing real-name registration. The notice said that telecom operators should use “artificial intelligence and other technical means” to verify people’s identities when they take a new phone number. The new rules came into effect on 1 December.

The Chinese government has pushed for real-name registration for phone users since at least 2013, when it required identity cards to be linked to new phone numbers. Its move to harness artificial intelligence comes as facial recognition continues to spread across China, where it’s used in everything from supermarket checkouts to surveillance. The technology is in place at airports, office buildings and even at rubbish sorting facilities. Last week, Beijing’s subway system even began running trials for facial recognition at security gates.

More than 850 million people in China, or about 65% of the population, use their mobile devices to go online, far more than those using their desktops. Apps like WeChat and Weibo have largely become the Internet for many Chinese people, offering all sorts of services, from messaging and social networking to taxi services, food delivery and tax payment.

There are reportedly almost 200 million surveillance cameras operating in the country, with plans to double that number by the end of 2020. The cameras are being used to identify jaywalkers, monitor workers’ attendance and screen people entering residential and government buildings. The government is also developing a social credit system that will rate citizens according to how they behave online and in the real world. Scheduled to be fully implemented by 2020, the system results in punishments for citizens with low scores, for example, by imposing transport restrictions.

The move to embrace facial recognition has prompted rising concerns about privacy, but the Chinese government has maintained that it wants to protect its citizens in the online world. It will also allow the government to control phone and online fraud for the country’s 850 million Internet users, most of whom access the web on their phones. The population has welcomed the technology for its ease of doing business, but of late there have been murmurs of dissent. We believe a balance must be reached between law and order and people’s right to privacy.