Mobile face scans introduced in China

Written by:
Leah Johnston
Date Posted:
3 December 2019
Tech News

Chinese authorities aim to verify the identities of internet users

Identity check
With the widespread adoption of facial recognition technology advancing across the globe, it is no surprise that as of Sunday 1st December, all mobile phone users in China that wish to register new SIM cards must now undergo facial recognition scans.

The new rule was announced in September by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, in a notice to telecom operators, saying it would “protect and legitimate rights and interests of citizens in cyberspace”. Using artificial intelligence (AI) and other technical methods, the technology will match the faces of customers buying new SIM cards with their identity documents. 

In your face
The policy comes as part of a wider plan by the Chinese government to restrict people’s ability to stay anonymous online. Currently, Chinese citizens already have to show their national identification card and have their photos taken, but the latest biometric advancements have left social media users fearing that their personal data could be compromised.

China is no stranger to facial recognition technology, with it already being used in a wide range of services such as financial payments, concert venues and public transport. But many privacy rights activists and concerned citizens think that the newest face-scanning system is taking things too far. 

What is the motive?
Jeffrey Ding, a researcher on Chinese artificial intelligence at Oxford University, suggested that one motivation for getting rid of anonymous internet accounts and phone numbers was to improve cyber-security and reduce internet fraud. 

He also suggested, however, that another plausible motive is to better track the state, “It’s connected to a very centralised push to try to keep tabs on everyone, or that’s at least the ambition”. 

The face of fear
Unsurprisingly, the September announcement did not attract much Chinese media attention – but social media users took to platforms to voice their concerns over the amount of data being held on them. One user of the Sina Weibo microblogging website wrote, “People are being more and more strictly monitored… What are they [the government] afraid of?”.

Often described as a surveillance state, China had 170 million CCTV cameras across the country in 2017, with the goal of installing a further 400 million by 2020. A significant issue with the new technology is the lack of regulation on how it can be used. China already largely censors the internet – blocking and removing content that it doesn’t want the public to see, so it is unsurprising that fears are focused on data theft, hacking and commercial companies abusing their power. Has China lost its freedom entirely?

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