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Face Recognition Overuse in Public Spaces: A Shared Regulatory Concern?

Mar 17, 2021

A case in Hangzhou, China made headlines last November for its implications on the use of facial recognition in China. Guo Bing, an associate law professor, won the lawsuit against a local zoo that used facial recognition technology to verify the identity of its visitors at the zoo´s entrance without the visitor’s consent. The zoo was ordered to compensate Guo and delete Guo’s personal data. According to media reports, Guo filed an appeal in an attempt to extend the ban on the use of unconsented face recognition to all visitors. 

Mr. Guo, hardly an average citizen when it comes to China’s courts, is a law professor at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University. He hired a local law firm specializing in data protection compliance after the incident. As well prepared as he was, the lack of precedent for Guo´s complaints goes to show how widespread overuse of facial recognition technology in everyday life has gone unchecked in China and beyond. 

The details surrounding the Hangzhou Zoo’s actions are sure to raise some eyebrows. Before “upgrading” to facial recognition, the zoo already had a commonly used biometric identity verification tool in place: a scanner for visitor’s fingerprints. 

How did the process for entering this particular zoo come to resemble something that might be expected from a military installation? Widespread adoption of biometrics for identity verification is a global trend and the implications and needs of these tools are growing. In the commercial sector, the payment service industry with services like Alipay has popularized the use of biometrics for verification purposes beyond border security checks and military facilities, mainly for convenience reasons. According to court records available at China Judgments Online, the zoo’s lawyers argued that prior to the implementation of facial recognition technology, the zoo’s slow verification process used to lead to long queues during peak visiting times. The technology therefore became necessary in order to ensure faster entry, resulting in the zoo to upgrade its system in the spirit of the “construction of national smart scenic areas” to better meet the needs of its customers. As the space for biometric verification grows, companies are finding more ways of integrating the technology into their business practices. 

Serious security concerns about the zoo’s technological infrastructure and guarantees for safe handling of biometric information were left unaddressed. The introduction of the zoo’s new technology echoes the general aspiration of China's leaders to deepen the “new infrastructure” in a quest of becoming a global AI leader by 2030. The drive for leadership in this field led to drastic improvements in the efficiency of monitoring public places including shopping malls, scenic spots, public transport, and local communities. 

Criticism in China, Europe, and the U.S. has been mounting against what seems to be an overuse of face recognition without a clear purpose. Moreover, widespread use of facial recognition technology, coupled with algorithmic decision-making by the security apparatus in China remains unregulated. Newly proposed legislation regulating data privacy holds some future promise for citizens’ to challenge data collection in cases like Guo’s, but only on paper as taking the state to court in China remains a costly, daunting option for most citizens. 

In Europe and the U.S. legislative attempts to address facial recognition technology have only just begun, but may offer a model to learn from. While the EU Commission initially considered a complete ban of up to five years on facial recognition in public spaces to better evaluate its effects, , it ultimately adopted a more flexible risk-based approach. EU’s “Roxanne,” an ambitious project launched in 2019, promises to curb the capacities of law enforcement agencies by combining “new speech technologies, face recognition and network analysis” by August 2022. 

In China, the conversation is ongoing. A 2020 report on face recognition and privacy protection issued by CAICT, a think tank affiliated with China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, acknowledged the “difficult trade-offs” between data sharing and privacy, called for clearer standards and better safeguards, while underscoring the economic value of the technology and the need for safer data sharing. 

The debate surrounding Guo´s case has likely compelled the local government in Hangzhou to issue a draft regulation prohibiting the mandatory use of facial recognition scans in residential communities. Authorities in Nanjing have urged real estate sales offices to halt the unauthorized use of the technology and Tianjin, in the context of social credit, has also responded to the regulatory need more seriously. 

The challenge of coping with new technologies and their rapid deployment in public spaces, particularly where citizens cannot opt-out, should be a shared concern of policymakers and legislators, especially as facial recognition technologies become more readily available. European and U.S. policymakers should keep an eye on similar developments in China, learn about the solutions outlined by regulators and critically evaluate the everyday experience of citizens. Not everybody has the resources Mr. Guo had at his disposal and the will to test the limits via judicial channels with a larger public interest beyond the immediate outcome in mind. Therefore, giving sufficient attention to making easily accessible ways for citizens to voice their concerns and redress injustices is crucial. 

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