Using nationalism to refocus facial recognition concerns in China
China’s authoritarian government is shocked that its subjects have fallen victim to indiscriminate, secret facial recognition networks.
It took a state-sponsored, very popular TV show on a state-owned TV network to bring the scandal to light for hundreds of millions of Chinese viewers last week.
A state-approved publication, the Global Times, now has taken up the biometrics-privacy banner:
“[T]he violation of people’s biometric data privacy, as denounced by the TV show, has the public and industry watchers urging for a swifter legislative push to update the regulatory framework and catch up with the advances in technology.”
The savvy reader, having at this point sensed the irony, knows that the outrage here is not aimed at the Chinese government’s unprecedented, nationwide facial recognition blanket. That is the blanket that has been used to, among other things, help escort tens of thousands of political and religious minorities to concentration camps in the hinterlands.
The annual Consumer Rights Day TV show, used to pillory unscrupulous consumer-aimed companies, showcased four foreign brands in China — including U.S. plumbing-fixture maker Kohler — that its hosts claimed were illicitly capturing biometric data with video cameras.
(According to the Global Times, executives with the local Kohler outfit and their facial recognition camera supplier Wandianzhang, fell about supplicating themselves after being identified.)
It was not a hit job on off-shore firms, according to the publication, because the show denounced domestic businesses, too.
Except that the only other entities mentioned in the report were three jobs board sites (of the kind with endless columns of colorful flags that in much of the world signal FREE MALWARE HERE. Any of the three could be stealing data, but not with cameras as none of them have physical offices open to the public.
Assigning motives, of course, is not a best practice when it comes to China’s ruling Communist Party, but party leaders have demonstrated in the last decade a growing messaging adroitness.
It is at least possible that they would like to derail expanding domestic discontent with wall-to-wall facial recognition systems. Last year, 80 percent of Chinese respondents to a 2019 survey by The Financial Times said they worry that related data security is lax.
But the nation remains deeply and legitimately suspicious of outsiders. A hand-waving TV show like this year’s Consumer Rights Day program could give those opposed to the government’s intense facial recognition operations a new target.
The question then becomes, will politicians in any of the many nations now installing Chinese surveillance and covert identification products by the pallet turn the tables, getting their consumers more upset about China’s peering than their own.