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China rolls out mandatory facial recognition for new mobile phone accounts

A Chinese student on cell phone (Wesley Fryer/Flickr)
December 05, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has rolled out plans to require all new smartphone owners to register with facial recognition scans.

Telecoms operators in the country have been required to collect face scans from any newly registering users since Dec. 1, the ministry of industry and information technology said in a notice first published online in September.

The move is part of the real-name registration requirement for all users of online and mobile internet services, which now mandates the use of “artificial intelligence and other technical means” to verify identities.

An employee of a company in the eastern city of Nanjing, who gave only his surname Wang, told RFA that two newly recruited employees had been required to have their faces scanned as they registered for new mobile accounts linked to the company.

“When I went to work today, the boss asked two new colleagues to set up new mobile phone accounts, and people came from [telecoms provider] China Unicom to offer an on-site service,” Wang said.

“After they took the ID card information, they also recorded their facial recognition data,” he said. “This is very scary, because with the full rollout of 5G, back-end cloud data services, and cameras everywhere, they will always be able to locate you using facial recognition.”

Rights activist Wang Aizhong said the main point of the roll-out wasn’t to prevent reselling of sim cards, as the regulations stated, but to keep tabs on the population at all times.

“If, for example, they want to track down a criminal suspect or monitor and [control] dissidents, then they will be able to get the user identity along with the cell phone number,” Wang said.

“Now that new mobile phone registrations require a facial recognition scan … it’s even easier to confirm individuals’ identities, because all of the mobile phone services will have facial recognition built in,” he said.

‘Just like 1984’

Pan Lu, a former high school teacher in the eastern province of Jiangsu, said the move also represents ever-increasing controls on the private sector by the central government.

“In China, the government can ask us to surrender any privacy without any conditions or limitations,” Pan said. “This is exactly like [the slogan] ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ in the novel ‘1984’ [by George Orwell].”

Meanwhile, there are concerns that China may also be seeking to export its monitoring and surveillance practices far beyond its borders.

Chinese technology companies are shaping new facial recognition and surveillance standards at the United Nations, according to leaked documents obtained by the Financial Times.

China’s ZTE, Dahua, and China Telecom are proposing new international standards via the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for facial recognition, video monitoring, and city and vehicle surveillance, the Dec. 1 report said.

Regulations set by the ITU are generally adopted by countries outside Europe and North America, which have their own bodies for telecoms standards.

“Suggested uses for facial recognition technology include the examination of people in public spaces by the police, confirmation of employee attendance at work, and the arrest of criminals,” the article said.

Facial data can also be added to “blacklists” of people to watch out for in schools, temples, airports, hospitals, malls, and neighborhoods, it cited the proposal as saying.