Chinese cities target facial recognition to curb abuse of personal data


By Tracy QuYujie Xue

Tianjin introduced a new policy which prohibits private and state-owned organisations as well as business groups from collecting biometric data. Nanjing, the capital of China’s eastern Jiangsu province, has ordered property agents to remove facial recognition systems from their sales offices. — SCMP

Several Chinese cities have moved to tighten regulations on the use of facial recognition personal data in line with stricter laws being introduced by the central government to limit the abuse of personal data collection.

Tianjin, one of China’s four municipalities, passed its Municipal Social Credit Regulation on Tuesday, which prohibits private and state-owned companies, industry associations and chambers of commerce from collecting biometric data, including facial recognition information, and using it as social credit information.

Separately Nanjing, the capital of China’s eastern Jiangsu province, has ordered property agents to remove facial recognition systems from their sales offices, according to a report by state broadcaster CCTV on Thursday.

The move follows local media reports that some property developers were installing video surveillance systems in sales offices to collect facial recognition data from potential homebuyers without their permission.

The Nanjing Real Estate Management Bureau did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking confirmation.

These steps by local governments are in line with China’s tightening regulations for personal information collection introduced over the past few months. The draft version of a personal information protection law was introduced in October, while the scope of personal information gathered by livestreaming and short video-sharing services will be strictly limited, according to new rules introduced by Beijing on Tuesday.

Surveillance cameras using facial recognition technology have been widely adopted across China, in settings like railway stations, intersections, banks and pop concerts, contributing to the country’s position as the world’s second-largest market for video surveillance cameras just behind North America, according to a July report by research firm IDC.

The widespread use of such surveillance systems has raised concerns over privacy infringements and led to calls for regulation.

“There is growing awareness among people that once biometric information, including face recognition information, is leaked or abused, it may cause irreversible damage to the parties involved,” said a Beijing-based lawyer, who declined to be named due to the sensitive nature of the issue. “People are becoming more cautious and legislation has responded to that.”

The coronavirus pandemic also triggered a debate on the scope of personal information collection.

“It’s in this process of rethinking personal data protection that local regulators started to introduce their policies (on facial recognition),” said Zhu Wei, a law professor at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing.

Zhu believes current laws to enforce facial recognition data violations are too weak. “I’ve seen some courts using criminal laws against the infringement of personal information including facial data, but most of the punishments are still too light... punishment should be reinforced in this area,” he said.

Last month, a court in Zhejiang province ruled on China’s first lawsuit against facial recognition usage, ordering a wildlife park in Hangzhou to delete the facial recognition data of a law professor who was a regular park visitor and to pay him compensation.

In late October Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, issued a draft regulation to prohibit neighbourhood committees from forcing residents to use fingerprints, face recognition and other biological information to access shared facilities and equipment.

An updated version of China’s Personal Information Security Specifications that took effect in October provided more detailed rules and guidelines on the collection and use of personal biometric information such as facial data.

China’s first Civil Code, approved by the National People’s Congress and scheduled to take effect on January 1, covers biometric information under provisions for the protection of citizens’ privacy rights. – South China Morning Post

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