No revolution for biometric face-scanning regulations in China

Privacy rights groups call for ‘day of action’ to ban facial recognition at all schools

An analysis of China’s regulatory posture finds “tentative progress” has been made in protecting some biometric data captured by government and businesses.

The report, compiled by the think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies, is anything but an endorsement of how the authoritarian government secures data collected via facial recognition systems, now common throughout China’s urban and suburban regions.

Public sentiment is said to be evolving — inching may be the better description — away from subservient acceptance of government biometric practices and to meekly expressed dissatisfaction, according to the center.

However, any changes in the short term to how face scans are collected, used and stored are likely to be minimal, writes the report’s author, Seungha Lee.

First, the Chinese government’s unwavering position is that face-scanning creates more peace and harmony by monitoring the nation for criminals, foreign spies and the disloyal. Second, it historically has punished dissent, often brutally. Third, policy decisions like these take place exclusively at the highest reaches of the communist party.

The report finds hope in the fact that China’s first lawsuit involving facial recognition was filed in October 2019 and not immediately dismissed or buried. A Chinese university professor sued when it was learned that anyone entering a wildlife park first had to comply with a face scan. The center’s report notes that the case is ongoing.

The government in 2017 allowed the creation of the Cybersecurity Law, which covers a good bit of ground in terms of securing personally identifiable information, but skimps on facial recognition. Biometric data “is not the central focus of the law, and it is not discussed beyond the definition section” of the law.

The national legislature reportedly is drafting a data privacy bill that is more focused on biometrics, but it is going nowhere fast.

There also is a published industry specification, last updated in March by Beijing, for securing personal information, but it is not binding.

It bears noting that the Center for Strategic & International Studies takes donations from nations and businesses globally, a practice that potentially creates a conflict of interest, according to an investigation of think tanks by The New York Times.

China is not listed on the center’s government donations page, but its corporate donors include many companies who might want to steer policy or public opinion on the topic in China. Among them are IBM Corp., McAfee Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., and Science Applications International Corp.

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