Backlash in China brewing against rampant face-recognition in daily life

Over at Technode, Shi Jiayi synthesizes recent stories in Chinese media showing how China’s ever-surveilled population is getting sick of rampant face-recognition, and is speaking out.

Face-recognition tech has penetrated all sectors of everyday life in China. As Jiayi notes, it’s “it is now used in stores for pay-by-face, in hotels and public transportation for identification checks, and even in schools for monitoring in-class behavior.” It’s also frequently used to gain access to buildings.

But now there are law professors publicly criticizing firms that use face-recognition, and — with online voices cheering them on — even launching lawsuits. Here’s the case of law professor Guo Bing, who got annoyed after he bought a ticket to visit Hangzhou Safari Park, only to find they demanded a face-scan before he’d be allowed in …

When Guo went to the park and saw staff using phones to scan people’s faces, he wanted to opt out—but the park refused to let him in, or give him his money back. After failed negotiation, Guo decided to sue the park for invasion of privacy and violating consumer rights and interests. 

After a year, on Nov. 20, 2020, the court in Hangzhou ruled in favor of Guo, finding that the park shouldn’t collect face and fingerprint data without customers’ consent. Guo got his money back for the ticket, and his ride to the park—RMB 1,038 (about $160).  The court also ordered the park to delete Guo’s personal information, including fingerprint and face data. However, the court rejected Guo’s other claims, saying that the park’s use of fingerprint and face recognition didn’t violate regulations and laws. 

Guo, arguing that the park should not be allowed to require visitors to use face recognition, is still appealing. 

Guo’s case has been widely discussed on social media, with comments breaking one-sidedly in his favor. Many people raised concern about the abuse application of face recognition technology. In response to news about Guo’s lawsuit, one Weibo commentator wrote: “My residential area requires us to enter with face recognition. It looks fancy and high-tech, but who knows when the property company will collect our face data and where they sell them to?” 

Shi compiles a few other examples — including critiques of face-recognition in state-sponsored media — so go read the whole thing. Granted, in a country as massive as China, it’s tricky to generalize about what’s happening at street level. But if everyday citizens are indeed getting sick of having their faces scanned so often, it’ll be interesting to see how the top levels of the party react.

(That CC-2.0-licensed photo of a CCTV camera courtesy Rafael Parr’s Flickr stream)

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Clive Thompson