Aug 8, 2023, 4:50pm EDT
securityEast Asia

China wants to limit facial recognition use, with exceptions

Facial recognition in China
REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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The News

China’s new proposed facial recognition laws aim to limit their use in the private sector, while leaving the scope of its use wide open for national security purposes.

According to the draft guidelines by the country’s internet regulator, the technology will be explicitly banned from identifying race, ethnicity, religious belief or health status without consent from users. But there are exceptions for the government’s use of the technology for national security purposes.

We’ve curated reporting and commentary on the proposed laws and how China has been using facial technology.

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  • The proposed laws encapsulate “the sweet and sour approach of Chinese governance” which on one hand reflect “an authoritarian tech-enabled superpower,” and on the other show legitimate concern about the misuse of facial technology, Samm Sacks of Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center told the Wall Street Journal. The regulations would bring China closer to Western norms on the tech, including proposed rules in the European Union and in U.S. states.
  • The draft rules suggest there was public concern over the technology’s intrusiveness, including its use in bathrooms to activate toilet paper dispensers. When the guidelines are finalized, facial recognition will no longer be allowed in places like gyms, changing rooms, and hotel rooms. — The Times
  • Beijing’s facial recognition technology was like ”marrying Big Brother to big data,” ABC Australia’s Matthew Carney said in a 2018 documentary. In one instance, Carney attempted to jaywalk before his picture was pulled up on a billboard with an announcement instructing him to return to the other side of the street. China’s AI capabilities left “no dark corner to hide in,” Carney said.
  • Activists continue to worry how facial recognition will target minorities, given the national security exceptions in the proposed laws. China has been repeatedly accused of using facial recognition to monitor dissidents and Uyghur Muslims. A 2020 Washington Post article detailed how Chinese tech giant Huawei tested software that would send police “Uyghur alarms.” Huawei later said the software was not put to use.
  • Americans often swing between being afraid of government surveillance and being fearful of crime, Adam Schwartz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told CNN last year. This has resulted in some U.S. cities repealing laws banning facial recognition use, many of which were passed in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests. At the time, citizens were worried about police using AI to target Black people, but then there was a “pendulum swing” to people being afraid of more crime. However, Schwartz said the overall trend is more favorable towards limiting the government’s use of surveillance tech.