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China needs to enact facial recognition legislation

But before the technology can be applied at scale, China can no longer evade discussions over the legal issues surrounding the use of facial recognition technology

By NewsChina Updated Jan.1

In what many are saying is the first court case involving the use of facial recognition in China, Guo Bing, a professor from Zhejiang Sci-Tech University filed a lawsuit against a wildlife park in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang, for infringing on his rights to personal privacy.  

Hangzhou Safari Park recently made facial recognition a mandatory requirement for visitors. Guo, a season ticket holder, says that the park, as a commercial organization, has no legal basis to compulsorily collect visitor’s individual characteristics and it therefore violates existing consumer protection law. A local court has accepted the case.  

In the past couple of years, China’s law enforcement agencies have rapidly employed facial recognition technologies to increase their ability to ensure public security, which has led to no serious challenge from the general public. But as the application of facial recognition technologies has expanded into areas unrelated to public security, it has led to increasing concerns over its potential infringement upon personal privacy.  

Recently, when China Pharmaceutical University in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, launched a pilot project to install a facial recognition system in a classroom to monitor student and teacher behavior and performance, there was outcry from students and many of the general public.  As facial recognition technologies are now adopted by a wide range of organizations, including airports, train stations, hospitals and tourist destinations, it is now time for China to enact legislation to regulate both the use of facial recognition and the storage of facial data.  

In the past years, facial recognition technologies have experienced rapid development in China, largely due to the lack of legal protection of personal information. This is the very reason why China is now a leading player in facial recognition. But before the technology can be applied at scale, China can no longer evade discussions over the legal issues surrounding the use of facial recognition technology.  

In the past months, the use of facial recognition has attracted the attention of lawmakers around the world. In May 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation took effect across the European Union, which stipulates that the collection and processing of facial recognition data, as part of a person’s biometric data, requires explicit consent from the person whose data is being collected. Violation of the regulation is subject to a fine of up to 20 million euros (US$22m), or 4 percent of a company’s global revenue. It was reported that the EU is now considering even stricter rules for facial recognition technology.  

In the US, authorities in some cities, including San Francisco, have also launched legislation. While China leads the world in both the development and application of facial recognition technology, it is time to put legislation on the agenda. 

Policymakers should provide clear guidance and procedures on the collection, processing and storage of facial recognition data. At the end of the day, facial recognition data should be considered private information, and it should be mandatory to obtain consent for the collection of such data. In cases when compulsory collection is deemed necessary, there should be clear regulations on how that data can be used, stored and protected from unauthorized usage.  

For facial recognition technology to genuinely benefit China’s economic and social development, China needs to find the right balance between the need for personal privacy, public security and economic convenience. Without thorough discussion and debates, and a well-balanced law, it will inevitably lead to abuses of technology.