‘It Is Everywhere’

Mainland Chinese Fear Growing Use of Face Recognition 

By Patrick McShane

Facial-recognition technology is now one of the fastest-growing and most widely dispersed technologies in the world.  

But nowhere has high-resolution facial recognition become more prevalent than inside the People’s Republic of China.

The world’s second-largest economy has built a vast high-tech surveillance state unlike anywhere in the world.

According to experts in the global technology-surveillance industry, China has approximately 170 million close-circuit cameras around the nation, including at 200 airports.

That is roughly one camera for every 12 citizens, giving the Chinese the highest ratio of CCTV cameras to citizens in the world, with another 400 million cameras expected within three years.

It is not yet known how many of these cameras are equipped with face technology.

IDs in 3 Seconds

But Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post recently reported that the Chinese government was working on what would be the world’s most powerful facial-recognition system — one able to identify any of its 1.3 billion citizens within three seconds.

Even if the lighting is poor — or it is raining — and even if a citizen is wearing a COVID-19 mask.

However, there now seem to be signs of growing resentment against facial recognition.

“Old people — and even many middle-aged people, like my parents — say that it does not bother them. But, of course, it does.”

Chinese citizen in Hong Kong.

It is believed that many mainland Chinese, notably millions of young people, have tired of being watched everywhere — and all the time — from the second they step outside their homes.

The concern is especially deep-seated, considering that personal data-protection standards are nowhere near as high in China as in much of the developed world.

Exporting Face Software

Today, China is not only a major user of facial recognition, it is also becoming a global leader in exporting the software.

By 2023, China is expected to be the single largest player in the sale of facial-recognition technology, holding a market share of 45% of the world’s face-software sector.

According to a September report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, Beijing now exports its artificial-intelligence surveillance technology to some 63 countries, via such well-known mainland firms as Huawei, Hikvision and ZTE.

As with the governments of other nations, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) says more facial-recognition is needed to prevent crimes ranging from jay walking to pickpocketing to non-toilet flushing to railway fare-jumping — and to more serious crimes like burglaries and murders.

Suppressing Opposition

There are also the unspoken fears that face technology will be routinely used by CCP to suppress political opposition to party policies and to reduce methods for staying anonymous online.

Whenever anyone in China requests a new cellphone number, an ID photo must be taken — and this is matched to a government ID photo that can be used to track the person’s physical movements and online social activities.

“Young people are more outspoken — and many … say that they hate it.”

Unlike in liberal democracies, in Beijing, every person over the age of 16 must carry a government identification card with their complete biometric data.

China’s vast national digital ID program also is linked with WeChat, the nation’s single most popular online site and mobile payment platform — with more than 1 billion active users every month.

WeChat allows users to sync their national ID cards with the app and their phones as an official ID, which can be used to buy concert tickets — as well as to book hotel rooms, airline seats, subway passes or long-distance train tickets.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Chinese police now are equipped with special sunglasses carrying built-in facial-recognition software — which, in a matter of seconds, can identify someone and have instant access to their private biometric data, including fingerprints, photos, signatures and DNA, as well as many months’ worth of that person’s travel records or personal purchases.

Use of these unique sunglasses, to instantly access a staggering amount of personal information, is seen by many young people as a blatant invasion of  privacy — alleging the new surveillance technology is being used without sufficient oversight — and where police can track citizens with complete freedom, for whatever reason.

84% Want Data Deleted

But according to a December 2019 survey of more than 6,500 respondents by a Beijing-based think tank, the Nandu Personal Information Protection Research Center, nearly 75% of the respondents preferred that their government use traditional ID methods rather than face software.

“This intrusion into people’s privacy will only get worse, because the technology is getting better and better.”

What is more, 57% of the respondents were troubled about their personal movements being tracked. And 84% of those questioned wanted to have the chance to evaluate the facial-recognition data collected from them — or have it deleted entirely.

That same year, however, serious legal pushback began with a lawsuit brought about by a law professor at Zhejiang Province’s Sci-Tech University — challenging the use of facial recognition at a wildlife park.

The action is believed to be the first lawsuit in Beijing against the use of face technology against a public for-pay facility. 

Late last year, the lawsuit was resolved when a local court ruled in Guo Bing’s favor, ordering the park to delete the professor’s data.

Others Push Back

More resistance came last March, when another academic, Lao Dongyan, a professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, challenged the introduction of face-scan locks to enter his residential complex, citing data-security concerns.

The case is believed to be still pending.

On Jan. 26, a survey conducted by another Beijing think tank of more than 1,500 anonymous residents, reported that nearly 90% opposed using face-recognition software in commercial zones.

“The central government is using COVID as an excuse to bring in more cameras — claiming that it is to make sure that people are all wearing their masks.”

Nearly 70% also felt the technology should not be used to access their residential areas. Further, disapproval of its use in hospitals, schools and offices ranged between 43% and 52%.

In addition, the Beijing News Think Tank recently released an evaluation of nearly 80 popular local apps for facial-recognition use, finding that nearly 50% supporting features that did not require permission from app users.

One Citizen’s Thoughts

A mainland Chinese citizen living in Hong Kong spoke to Digital Privacy News about the issue in China, provided that only a surname be used.

Aged 34, Zhou has been working in Hong Kong’s real-estate sector for nine years, though returning to the mainland four times a year to visit family — most recently for Chinese New Year earlier this month.

“Of course, everyone knows how commonplace cameras with facial recognition have become in China,” Zhou said. “It is everywhere.

“Old people — and even many middle-aged people, like my parents — say that it does not bother them.

“But, of course, it does.

“No one is fooled by the government’s deception.”

“Young people are more outspoken — and many, including friends of mine — say that they hate it,” Zhou said. “But this is something that we only speak about among ourselves, people we know well.

“And, after all, what can we do about it?

“I’m sure that this intrusion into people’s privacy will only get worse, because the technology is getting better and better.

‘COVID as an Excuse’

“And now,” Zhou continued, “the central government is using COVID as an excuse to bring in more cameras — claiming that it is to make sure that people are all wearing their masks.”

However, “the government insists that this has nothing to do with political surveillance,” Zhou told Digital Privacy News. “But if that is the case, why have they now developed cameras that can see through masks?

“If the people are complying with the key COVID safety policy to always wear a mask, why does the government insist on seeing who is under that mask?

“No one is fooled by the government’s deception.” 

Patrick McShane is a longtime resident of Asia.