From Hangzhou in eastern China, Guo Bing drew attention to abuses related to the use of facial recognition in the country. Professor of law, he took the path he knew: he went to court.
Guo Bing had paid tuition at a local zoo, and at one point, he was told that in order to continue attending the facility, he had to be enrolled in the park’s new facial recognition system. Fingerprints weren’t enough anymore. And Guo thought it was too much.
With wide repercussions nationwide, the activist professor’s case is seen as the first dispute to test the limits of the use of facial recognition in China. Gradually, the dissatisfaction of the Chinese with the abuses linked to the collection, storage and use of biometric data is becoming more and more evident.
The government reveals this nuisance, but treats it as a problem that binds individuals and businesses. And not individuals and the state. Under the protective mantle of the public interest, the government leaves only room for discussion on the practices of private agents and the commercial use of data. In this well-defined area, discontent is beginning to resonate with the authorities.
The Chinese are accustomed – or resigned, one would say a lot – to the profusion of surveillance cameras. Even assuming that there could be facial recognition, they don’t assume the information is used for commercial purposes.
A recent TV show revealed retail companies that unbeknownst to the public are using the technology. This enables commercial establishments to know, in real time, whether the individual entering a store is already a customer, whether he is buying or just looking, and how much he usually spends. Social media fury.
In addition to stores, malls and residential condominiums, applications that use technology for uses ranging from youth entertainment to payment authorization are the focus of attention.
By delimiting the terms of the problem, the government seeks, in these cases, to offer answers. China is in the process of passing a law on the protection of personal information, marking a change in the country’s treatment of privacy. The bill is in public consultation until Friday (28).
Controversies between private actors and facial recognition abound in China. The technology was also reportedly used at a school in Hangzhou to assess whether children were paying attention in class – or whether they were distracted, impatient or bored. Because the new bill limits the collection of biometric data from minors.
The facial recognition of drivers by app has also sparked controversy. In 2020, Didi announced that she would be piloting an experiment using the technology to see if the driver was showing signs of drowsiness or drunk driving. He can? Should I be able to?
Beijing is seeking leadership in digital technologies, including facial recognition. Personal data is the fuel for this technology. So far, a flexible regulatory environment and a plethora of data have favored businesses across the country.
In Chinese logic, state intervention does not come first. On the contrary, the space is left to economic agents to act. Regulations come into play when there is more clarity on how to intervene. For the protection of personal data, however, the time has come. The challenge for Beijing is to regulate without calling into question its technological ambitions.
Meanwhile, in Hangzhou, Guo Bing won the fight against the zoo. Widely publicized in China, the professor’s victory indicates Beijing’s point of view on the subject.
If until now there was virtually no limit to the use of facial recognition, anything goes. A prelude to new times, the zoo’s precedent indicates a change in attitude and rules.
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