This past Sunday, AFP reported that China moved forward with a plan to require telecom operators to collect face scans when they register new phone users at offline outlets according to a report from the country’s information technology ministry.
China’s move to carry out facial scans is part of its campaign to strengthen its cyberspace controls.
In September, China’s industry and information technology ministry released a notice on “safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of citizens online”, which set rules for enforcing real-name registration.
The notice recommended that telecom operators use “artificial intelligence and other technical means” to confirm people’s identities when they acquire a new phone number.
A China Unicom customer service representative told AFP that the December 1 “portrait matching” requirement would make customers registering for a new phone number have to record themselves blinking and turning their head in order to verify their identity.
“In next steps, our ministry will continue to…increase supervision and inspection…and strictly promote the management of real-name registration for phone users,” the September notice stated.
Since 2013, the Chinese government has advocated for real-name registration for phone users. In other words, ID cards would be linked to new phone numbers. Now, however, the Chinese government is pivoting towards AI as facial recognition gains popularity across China where the technology is used in a broad range of activities ranging from supermarket checkouts to surveillance.
Chinese social media users had a mixed reaction towards the December 1 facial verification notice. Many expressed concerns that their biometric data could be leaked or sold.
“This is a bit too much,” one user posted under an article about China’s new rules on the Twitter knock-off Weibo.
“Control, and then more control,” another user posted.
Although researchers are worried about the privacy risks that gathering facial recognition data entails, Chinese consumers have largely accepted the technology.
However, China witnessed one of its first lawsuits on facial recognition last month.
In early November, a Chinese professor sued a safari park in Hangzhou for mandating face scans before entering the venue, according to the local court.
Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has taken a more authoritarian turn that is reminiscent of the Maoist era.
With 21st century technology at their disposal, China is pushing the limits of hi-tech authoritarianism.
Such displays of government overreach could likely be exported to the West if U.S. companies and elected officials don’t take a stand against China and re-assert Western-style civil liberties.
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