China makes facial recognition scans mandatory for mobile phone users

By: Joseph Lyttleton

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On Sunday, December 1, China’s new facial recognition law came into effect. The law requires that anyone who registers a subscriber identification module (SIM) card must submit to a facial recognition scan. The law, which was passed in September this year, has ignited a debate regarding privacy and consumer rights. It also raises questions about how the technology could potentially be used.

While China has claimed the new regulation will protect consumers’ identities online, some experts have warned that the country lacks sufficient regulation over the technology. Chinese technology companies are currently in the process of helping the industry set national standards. Even with these in place, concerns over the technology have not been quelled.

Warning by human rights advocates 

Prior to China enacting its new law, the European Union (EU) Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) submitted a report to the EU, warning about the use of the technology. In the report, the FRA cautioned that indiscriminate use of the technology without people’s consent may lead to “a negative impact on people’s dignity.”

The report that was submitted to the EU in November also warned that even if the technology is used ethically, there is still the risk of stolen or misplaced data. It raises deep concerns about the rights to privacy, even for individuals who haven’t consented to the use of the technology.

This technology may also be used to undermine basic human rights, warned Diego Naranjo, head of policy for European Digital Rights (EDRi). Nations could potentially make use of the technology to suppress protests, making it difficult for citizens to exercise their right to assemble freely, Naranjo cautioned. 

During the recent unrest in Hong Kong, masked protestors knocked down one of the region’s many facial recognition towers, which many fear are being used to send data to Beijing.

China’s intentions

While the implementation of this law will continue to fuel the debate over privacy, it is not the first effort by China to eliminate anonymity online. Before this new facial recognition law took effect, mobile phone users were required to provide their national identity document (ID) or passport to acquire a SIM card, a law that exists in roughly 150 countries. For China, these rules are part of an effort to ensure that every internet user is using their “real-name” identities.

Even as experts debate privacy concerns, China has found other uses for facial recognition technology which are controversial. It has been found that the nation is using the tech to distinguish between ethnic groups. In April, the New York Times reported that China was using a facial recognition system to track the Uighurs, a minority Muslim group that has been placed into detainment camps in Xinjiang.

China is also looking into using DNA to determine if a person can be identified as a Uighur. This information is collected by authorities in Xinjiang under the country’s Population Registration Program, which the government claims is intended to protect “social stability.” Along with DNA samples, the program collects the fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types of all inhabitants in the region.

The merging of these two technologies could be used to “hunt” people, warns Mark Munsterhjelm, an assistant professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. If so, it will create a challenging state of affairs for trade partners with China, a nation that has been swift in opposing challenges over their treatment of the Uighurs.

Facial recognition technology in the United States

China is not the only nation to have found a use for facial recognition technology. This technology has also spread to most Western countries and has been used in the United States for years.

The New York City Police Department (NYPD), the largest police force in the country, has been using the technology since 2011. In August 2019, the technology was used to locate a man who had planted three hoax bombs throughout Manhattan. Within two hours of the devices being found, every NYPD officer’s mobile phone received a photograph of the suspect based on surveillance footage fed to the department’s Facial Identification Section (FIS) software. The suspect was arrested later that night.

On a broader scale, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) facial recognition database is said to have over 640 million images, which include many Americans. This database can be freely searched by members of the bureau without a warrant. Concerns over the technology have led multiple cities throughout the United States to ban police forces from using it.

Despite privacy concerns being a bipartisan issue, there has been very little done on a federal level. In March this year, Republican Senator Roy Blunt and Democrat Senator Brian Schatz authored The Commercial Facial Recognition Privacy Act of 2019. This bill sought to prohibit companies from using facial recognition to track individuals in public or selling facial data without user consent. The bill, however, never made it to a vote on the Senate floor.