New Mobile Accounts to Require Facial Recognition Test

At Quartz, Jane Li reports on a statement released late last month by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, that anyone applying for a new mobile and data service plan will need to have their faces scanned by their telecom provider. Effective December 1, this new verification requirement is an update of longstanding real-name verification regulations for cell phone and internet platform registration, and is the latest regulation to tighten the Xi administration’s control over internet access.

MIIT said the step was part of its efforts to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of citizens in the cyberspace” and to control phone and internet fraud. In addition to the facial-recognition test, phone users are also banned from passing their mobile phone numbers to others, and encouraged to check if numbers are registered under their name without their consent.

[…] The new regulation comes as Beijing tightens its control over the internet, which most people in China access on their mobiles, seeing it as a vital tool of social control. Chinese president has promoted the idea of “cyber sovereignty,” asking other countries to respect China’s internet governance practices, which have seen major international sites like Facebook and Twitter blocked, and even personal messaging communications censored.

While the technology ministry said enhancing protection for ordinary phone users was one of the aims of the new order,  that reason didn’t appear to convince Chinese internet users, who say it could contribute to more personal information leakage, and is just downright invasive.

[…] “How many years passed since the real-name registration system has been implemented? Scam and sales phone calls still have not been stopped! Gathering citizen’s information excessively like this is a violation of people’s civic rights,” one user said under the news, with this comment being liked over 1,000 times. [Source]

China’s early adoption and development of technology has long raised privacy concerns. Facial recognition technology is at the center of an ongoing crackdown on the Uyghur ethnic minority in Xinjiang, where an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs have been detained in extralegal internment camps, and is also a part of an ambitious and invasive nationwide rural surveillance program known as Sharp Eyes.

The Chinese public reportedly hold mixed opinions about privacy and AI technologies such as facial recognition–some favoring the security that the tech promises, and others fearing potential abuses. CDT recently translated fearful netizen commentary on a news article about AI behavioral analysis, including facial recognition, being used in primary schools, a practice that the BBC recently reported would be “curbed and regulated” in China following public expression of privacy concerns. Last month at CNBC, Evelyn Cheng and Grace Shao reported on a growing backlash to AI and facial recognition technology from Chinese media following public concerns over a popular face-swapping app’s potential to be used for “deepfake” video manipulation:

“The future has come, artificial intelligence is not only a test for technological development, but a test for governance,” city newspaper The Beijing News, wrote Sunday in Chinese, according to a CNBC translation.

“Right now it’s very difficult to determine whether the software operator’s collection of human facial data and authorization are malicious, but netizens’ concerns are understandable,” it wrote.

That’s a marked shift from silence, or even straight-out commentary that Chinese citizens don’t care much about giving up data privacy for convenience. […] [Source]

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, where pro- protesters have been rallying for the past 17 weeks, a majority of demonstrators have been wearing face masks to hide their identities. At NPR, Bill Chappell reports that the Hong Kong government is expected to invoke emergency powers this week, allowing it to apply a ban on face masks:

If Hong Kong’s leaders indeed use the emergency law to ban face masks, it would be the first time in half a century that a chief executive has used those powers, which date to 1922, when Hong Kong was under British rule.

“Hong Kong outlets are reporting that the city’s Cabinet will invoke the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance,” NPR’s Emily Feng reports from Beijing. “The law gives embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam broad powers to head off protests by stifling communication networks or raiding homes without a warrant.”

[…] The law allows the chief executive to wield broader authority if they see a need to act in the public interest during a time of emergency. The law, which evidently did not foresee the possibility that a woman might one day lead Hong Kong’s government, states:

“On any occasion which the Chief Executive in Council may consider to be an occasion of emergency or public danger he may make any regulations whatsoever which he may consider desirable in the public interest.”

[Source]

Reports about the potential ban came days after a teenage protester was shot in the chest by police last weekend. At The New York Times, Paul Mozur and Lin Qiqing report on how fear of a future in which the “tech-backed authoritarianism” of the mainland also applies to Hong Kong has helped to fuel the ongoing protest movement:

This invisible but stark technological wall has loomed as Hong Kong’s protests smolder into their fourth month. The semiautonomous city’s proximity to a society that is increasingly closed off and controlled by technology has informed protesters’ concerns about Hong Kong’s future. For many, one fear is the city will fall into a shadow world of , censorship and digital controls that many have had firsthand experience with during regular travels to China.

The protests are a rare rebellion against Beijing’s vision of tech-backed authoritarianism. Unsurprisingly, they come from the only major place in China that sits outside its censorship and surveillance.

The symbols of revolt are rife. Umbrellas, which became an emblem of protests in Hong Kong five years ago when they were used to deflect pepper spray, are now commonly deployed to shield protester activities — and sometimes violence — from the digital eyes of cameras and smartphones. In late July, protesters painted black the lenses of cameras in front of Beijing’s liaison office in the city.

Since then, Hong Kong protesters have smashed cameras to bits. In the subway, cameras are frequently covered in clear plastic wrapping, an attempt to protect a hardware now hunted. In August, protesters pulled down a smart lamppost out of fear it was equipped with artificial-intelligence-powered surveillance software. (Most likely it was not.) The moment showed how at times the protests in Hong Kong are responding not to the realities on the ground, but to fears of what could happen under stronger controls by Beijing. […] [Source]

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