By Alex Payne
As of Sunday, people in China who are looking to purchase a new mobile phone or sim card are to be subjected to mandatory face scans. The controversial measures, which were announced in September, have been justified by the Government as crucial to “protect the legitimate rights and interests of citizens in cyberspace.” However they have already been criticized by human rights activists as “dystopian”.
The Chinese population are already subjected to heavy handed surveillance measures by the government, with over 170 million cameras currently installed across the country monitoring their every move. This measure can be seen as a continuation of the government’s attempt to monitor and control the use of the internet. Existing measures have seen internet users required to use their real names online instead of pseudonyms, and the restriction of internet access for Chinese children to specific times. It seems that face-scanning will only form part of the Beijing governments attempt to utilize surveillance technology, as it was announced last year that Tsinghua University and Beijing based technology firm d-Ear would be collaborating on a pilot project to link people’s national ID information to their online voice. While these practices may seem confined to China, Chinese tech giants, such as Tencent, are having an unprecedented influence on new technology guidelines created by the UN.
While the technology being used has only been described in broad terms by the government as “artificial intelligence and other technology”, it appears to be similar to the software deployed at Nanjing University to track attendance and focus of students. This measure was heavily criticized by parents, and the Chinese Education Ministry promised it would “curb and regulate” the use of facial recognition, which appears to contradict this new compulsory face-scanning practice.
Reactions from the population has been mixed, although it is hard to accurately judge thanks to the heavy censoring from the government both online and in traditional media. Some people have welcomed the new measures as a new tool to combat identity theft and simply as another technological advancement. Others have voiced security concerns, as the government has been the target of data breaches in the past, and face recognition will add valuable data for hackers. Some citizens, however, have taken these worries further, including an associate law professor who sued the theme park, Hangzhou, over their use of facial recognition technology; it’s been hailed as one of the first lawsuits challenging the technology.