A university professor is suing a wildlife park for enforcing facial recognition, in one of the first significant legal challenges to China’s rapidly growing use of the technology.
It is an issue that has become a matter of heated debate.
Prof Guo Bing says the Hangzhou Safari Park is “violating consumer protection law by compulsorily collecting visitors’ individual characteristics”, after it suddenly made facial recognition registration a mandatory requirement for visitor entrance.
The park has since compromised by offering visitors a choice between using the previous fingerprint system and high-tech facial recognition, China Daily reports.
The park is one of many institutions to introduce facial recognition at its entrances. China has been aggressively rolling out facial recognition in the past five years, originally as a means of boosting security but now as a means of bringing consumer convenience to people’s lives, particularly in e-payments.
However, since Prof Guo questioned the necessity of it, there have been bigger conversations about the extensive amount of data kept on citizens.
What happened at the park?
Prof Guo, a law professor at the Zhejiang Sci-Tech University in eastern China, is a season ticket holder at the Hangzhou Safari Park.
In previous years, he has used fingerprint recognition to enter. But on 17 October, he received a message telling him that the park’s system had been upgraded, and it had become mandatory for visitors to register their details using the facial recognition system.
“I clearly expressed my dissatisfaction with the collection of facial data,” he told popular news website The Paper. He said that he was willing to continue scanning with his fingerprints, but he was told that was not possible.
When he said that he would like to cancel his card, he was told he would not receive a full refund.
So on 28 October, he took the park to court.
The official China Daily newspaper said his case, which has been accepted by the Fuyang District People’s Court, was “the first court case involving the use of facial recognition in China”.
The case is reported as still ongoing.
Will he succeed?
Dr Mimi Zou, a fellow in Chinese Commercial Law at Oxford University, says the case is very likely to be dismissed if Prof Guo continues to pursue it.
She says that, at present, “there is not a legally binding instrument that deals directly” with his claim, which is that the park is making collection of his biometric data a condition of entry, and therefore rendering his consent meaningless.
However, she says that there has been “a growing yet fragmented regulatory landscape of privacy and data protection laws in recent years”, as well as “a national voluntary standard on data privacy known as the Personal Information Security Specifications”.
Dr Zou tells the BBC that, although it is currently voluntary, it “lays a normative foundation for a more binding legal framework”.
She says that several big tech companies like Tencent and Alipay have trialled the scheme based on its current standards.
“I believe the rapid development of these standards reflects the growing privacy concerns among the general public in relation to how non-state actors are collecting and using their personal data. We are seeing an increasing responsiveness of Chinese regulators in tackling these concerns,” she says.
But she notes that state surveillance is “the elephant in the room” in cases against commercial/business actors that involve the legal protection of Chinese people’s data or privacy rights.
“In this realm – and not just in China – there is no such thing as personal privacy.”
Court case sparks wider debate
Now that questions about facial recognition have entered the courts, there are big discussions online in China about the technology.
Weibo users note that “many places are now forcibly collecting personal information”. One user’s comment that they fear “there will be risks in the future” related to it has received 2,000 likes.
“In China, people’s privacy is not protected,” another user adds, “and the illegal collection of facial recognition information is extremely scary.”
“Technology changes lives and brings convenience to people’s lives,” another user says. “But you should absolutely be cautious in the event of a security breach.”
“It’s too horrible,” another adds. “Everyone is collecting personal information from all over the place.”
How widespread is it?
Facial recognition has been in China for a number of years now.
In 2017, it was lauded for being extensively built into the country’s surveillance networks and helping the country identify and catch fugitives.
Last year, media noted that police were able to pick a fugitive out of a crowd of 60,000 at a concert due to facial recognition. In the same year, police equipped with the technology were able to identify suspected criminals in sunglasses.
But in recent months, it has seen a much more aggressive rollout in private institutes, such as gyms, office buildings and even schools.
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Facial recognition for payment in shops and supermarkets has increasingly become the norm, replacing the earlier trend of scanning QR codes attached to mobile apps.
And it has even been popularised among young people as a tool for entertainment. In late August, a mobile app called Zao made headlines because it could sophisticatedly take a print of somebody’s face, and put it almost seamlessly on the body of a celebrity, making people appear as if they were a character in their favourite film or TV programme.
However, within a week of Zao being launched, it was removed from online stores, after users noted the app’s terms and conditions “gave the developers the global right to permanently use any image created on the app for free”.
Will it slow down?
It is unlikely that the momentum for facial recognition will slow down in China, particularly because of its success in netting wanted fugitives.
Much has been written by official media on the “successful use” of facial recognition to net hundreds of criminals in China’s “Operation Fox Hunt”.
What’s more, China has indicated that it will aggressively extend its surveillance operations by 2020 using a highly sophisticated “Skynet” surveillance network.
In 2017, China had approximately 170 million CCTV cameras. But an estimated 400 million new cameras, many fitted with artificial intelligence and facial recognition, are expected to be in place by the end of the year.