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China’s face-scanning regulations are fuzzy and self-serving

China’s face-scanning regulations are fuzzy and self-serving

The only certainty about biometric facial recognition in China is that everyone’s face is being recognized. A lot.

As a modern technocratic dictatorship, China’s government uses facial recognition as part of a system to maintain stifling control over everyone and everything within the nation’s borders. So it is surprising that one of the areas that its authoritarian leaders seem willing to be somewhat relaxed is the use of facial recognition technology in the quasi-private sector.

Where they could be heavy-handed, the leaders are merely intensely watchful when businesses deploy facial recognition. Here are examples of the two perspectives.

In the ancient and large city of Xian, bureaucrats are readying artificial-intelligence kiosks at which couples can get their marriage certificates — after their face or government identification is scanned, according to the South China Morning Post.

The Hong Kong-based newspaper reported that at least one other city in China, Chengdu, has created a similar system, registering 2,500 couples in 2019. In the same article, the Morning Post reported that face-scanning terminals are already used by Hainan province citizens to complete some transactions with the government.

Much is made by officials of these facial recognition projects as being a way to reduce coronavirus transmission, counter marriage fraud and improve government efficiency. Less focus is placed on the government getting untold numbers of well-lit and identified face images for its domestic security files and machine learning algorithms.

And the process could hardly be more efficient. All that officials have to do is build and power the systems; people show up on their own.

Then there is the case (also reported in the Morning Post) of a 20,000 member gym in the city of Suqian that deployed facial recognition systems to check people in and out of the facility. Its owner, however, did not encrypt or protect its members’ biometric data, which also included fingerprints, names and phone numbers.

The business was issued a warning, a move that should not surprise.

An analysis of China’s facial-recognition rules by UK law firm Taylor Wessing found that there is no “unified legal framework for data protection driven by a strong emphasis on personal privacy as in Europe.”

Instead, according to Michael Tan, a partner in the firm and author of the analysis, lawmaking involving face scanning is “a very pragmatic ‘learning from doing’ approach.” In another nation, that might be called a laissez faire philosophy.

While some industries, including banking, operate under well-developed laws specific to them, there are draft national requirements that “generally cover all facial recognition” applications. The draft was made public a year ago, and as yet its stipulations are just guidelines.

It is possible that the gym’s owner and stakeholders in many Chinese businesses are not clear on how seriously Beijing is taking the matter.

A hands-off approach, at least regarding the private sector, makes sense domestically because national leaders’ first priority is the advancement of China’s strength in relation to other countries. Business rushing forward with biometrics regardless of privacy concerns might be considered the economy’s infantry — worth honoring but expendable.

The question that Tan ultimately is asking in the analysis is, what should biometrics entrepreneurs from outside China do when investing in that market.

He says they should watch the evolution of the laws very closely. Not said, but also a good thought: Know your tolerance for risk and spend accordingly.

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