China's facial recognition rollout reaches into mobile phones, shops and homes

Cheryl Sanders
December 3, 2019

The Chinese government presents the move as a user-friendly way to verify identity, but critics see it as another way to monitor people in a country famous for its authoritarian governments.

How do Chinese people feel about it?: It's hard to say for sure, given how strictly the press and social media are regulated, but there are hints of growing unease over the use facial recognition technology within the country.

In September, China's industry and information technology ministry issued a notice on "safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of citizens online", which laid out rules for enforcing real-name registration.

China is already using facial recognition software to track the movement of its citizens, something that's deemed as unethical and a breach of privacy in some western countries.

According to the government, this new measure is meant to "protect the legitimate rights and interest of citizens in cyberspace", but there's an understandable, if necessarily polite and restrained, degree of suspicion doing the rounds on China's Weibo social media network.

Under the lapsing rules, customers applying for new phone numbers need to show their national ID card and have their photos taken, not submit to a face scan.

The new mobile phone law strengthens such provisions since most Chinese users access the internet via their phones.

In 2017, for example, the new rules required internet platform to verify the user's identity before letting them post online content.

Last month, Chinese state media announced the development of a new "super camera".

China is widely regarded as a surveillance state.

Why it matters: Facial recognition is ubiquitous in China, with applications ranging from payments to public security. Of course, it also provides the Chinese government with a handy list of SIM cards matched to the citizens who bought them.

But it is used increasingly often in the private sector as well, such as to pay in shops and supermarkets. Although the park did not remove the technology, they eventually agreed to offer customers a choice between using the original fingerprint system or facial recognition.

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