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China, of all nations, now a leader in private biometric curbs. But for how long?

China, of all nations, now a leader in private biometric curbs. But for how long?

With a decision handed down late last month, China’s Supreme People’s Court appears to have put the autocratic nation ahead of virtually all other countries when it comes to national regulation of facial recognition systems used by businesses.

A new analysis of the decision and how it compares to regulation among the top 25 economies by gross domestic product indicates that Beijing may finally be sated with the technology, having made its citizens the most biometrically surveilled population on the globe.

Not noted in the piece but an assumption by some China watchers is that Beijing may be reacting to reportedly growing opposition to facial recognition common in public spaces everywhere.

The court gave citizens the right to refuse surveillance in all private businesses in China, according to digital security analyst firm Comparitech, “including banks, hotels, and nightclubs.”

A few exemptions were made, according to a U.S. Library of Congress analysis, including during public health emergencies.

The United States has no meaningful federal laws, regulations or court decisions curbing the private use of facial recognition. States, counties and municipalities — and very few at that — are tackling the issue.

In a result that will surprise some, Canada does not fare much better in the comparison. Comparitech claims the country’s privacy law does not define biometric or facial data and that it is possible to collect and share facial images without consent, though the country’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) bans collection and sharing of personal information by private entities without consent. This has consistently been interpreted as including face biometrics.

The Comparitech analysis has a fairly sunny take on the move in China given the dictatorial nature of politics at every level. The Communist Party runs the nation the way shareholders and management run private companies in capitalist economies.

It is hard to picture the circumstances in which party leaders (management) could be preventing from gutting or ignoring a court ruling if they deemed it in their interest.

That said, it might have been discomfort among China’s middle class that prompted the Supreme Court to act in July.

A statement from the court counted 1.14 million disputes involving “people’s personality rights” from July 1, 2010, to Dec. 31, 2020.

Almost 1,700 privacy court cases were resolved by judges from January 2016 to December 2020, according to the statement.

Comparitech reports that six nations, now including China, require explicit consent — people have the right to make informed, opt-in decisions. Many, and maybe most, other nations with some facial recognition regulation force people to opt out of private machine-vision surveillance.

The publication states that two nations among the top 25 economies go further than China, based on the criteria of having statutes specific to facial recognition. Belgium bans all private use of the technology. And Spain rebuffs it in all but the most extreme instances, such as when monitoring critical infrastructure.

The other nations judged as at least being active in trying to find an effective public policy on facial recognition are Brazil, the Netherlands and Sweden.

The spreadsheet of top economies, with data points useful in better understanding the whole picture is here.

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