A new rule requiring face scans of customers signing up for new mobile plans in China came into effect Sunday, December 1, 2019, amid widespread adoption of facial recognition across the country. In September, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced the change in a notice to telecom operators, saying it would “protect the legitimate rights and interest of citizens in cyberspace. ” The notice said that “artificial intelligence and other technical methods ” should be used to match the faces of customers buying new SIM cards with their identity documents. The policy is part of a broader push by the Chinese government to limit people’s ability to stay anonymous online. Under existing rules, consumers applying for new phone numbers need to show their national identification cards and have their photos taken.
New regulation increases concerns that there are not sufficient safeguards in place to protect people’s personal information. China does not have specific laws governing the use of facial recognition technologies. Concerned citizens and privacy rights activists say the face-scan policy takes things too far.
In China, there are fewer such concerns about the protection of personal information. The country’s large population, government, and sociocultural core tell a different story. A September 2018 survey by Deloitte found that the use of facial recognition and other technologies in China had grown significantly from the previous year.
Some 44% of smartphone users reported using the technology, up from just 18% in 2017. The use of fingerprint and speech recognition also jumped.
China’s public and private sectors have been early and aggressive users of facial recognition. The government routinely pairs large-scale surveillance systems with centralized photo databases to recognize and log people’s faces, ages, genders, behaviors, and other personal information. This so-called “name-and-shame” infrastructure is being used to nab suspected criminals and promote “model behaviors. ” For example, it can spot jaywalkers, track student’s class attendance and identify citizens who are disposing of trash improperly.
Technology from China´s largest companies is underpinning these initiatives. For example, Huawei, a global provider of facial recognition systems developed technology for subway operator Shenzhen Metro in the city of Shenzhen to let passengers pay using facial scans instead of fare cards. E Commerce giant Alibaba recently announced major stakes in prominent Chinese facial recognition startups Megvii and SenseTime following its 2016 acquisition of EyeVerify, a US-based facial recognition company now known as Zoloz. In retail, for example, it is exploring ways to target customers via facial recognition and deliver promotional offers. And in healthcare, it is enabling patients to register and pay their bills with their faces.
Alibaba is betting big on biometric payments too. Alipay, as well as competitor Tencent’s WeChat Pay, have been promoting their “smile-to-pay ” facial recognition payment systems massively. Though consumers in China are becoming more aware and concerned about how their personal data is being used, these systems appear to be gaining traction. A May 2018 Mintel survey found that 62% of urban digital buyers in China were “happy ” to pay for goods and services using biometric data.