As the modern era is increasingly defined by the massive amounts of data generated by everyday transactions and the ways that authorities process this data to target, monitor, monetize, and control the people, Chinese web users have in recent years been expressing alarm at the social and political implications of society’s increasing reliance on big data. In China, as in the world at large, demand for new information technologies is spurred by promises of personal convenience. However, many have noted that these new conveniences don’t come for free, pointing out that glitches in this new tech are commonplace, and warning that due to age or economic status, many are excluded from the advantages provided and from the social services that increasingly rely on this tech for distribution.
On WeChat earlier this month, user @与归随笔 described their reaction to learning how greatly inconvenienced elderly people can be by facial feature data requirements for activating social security benefits. In outrage at the humiliation that this requirement can cause to a traditionally venerated demographic, the author asks who works for who in a society fueled by big data:
It is important not to be tossed about in old age. A simple fall and tumble can be quite damaging.
And so, a video that I watched today left me outraged.
According to @四川观察 (Sichuan Observer), a 94-year-old grandma was having difficulty activating her social security card at a bank, and so had to be physically lifted-up by relatives in order to complete the facial recognition portion. Chinese netizens reported that this incident occurred in Guangshui, Hubei.
I’m not sure how this video made others feel, but to me it felt at once ridiculous and exasperating. We are not yet ruled over by man-made robots, but we’re already beginning to be tormented by man-made technologies.
A 94-year-old grandma, wearing such heavy winter clothing, just had to be tossed from her home to the bank, and then again manhandled up into the air….
If facial recognition were a person, I imagine he’d be an emperor, and the people would revolve ceaselessly around him. The young would bow and scrape in homage, the old would come in person to pay their respects, and the bank personnel would always be at the ready to serve.
Recently, “facial recognition” has made a big splash. When Hangzhou Safari Park unilaterally changed the entry procedure for annual card holders from a fingerprint to facial recognition system, it was sued in court by member Guo Bing, who holds a JD. The lawsuit has become known as China’s “first facial recognition case.”
Fortunately, the Fuyang district People’s Court of Hangzhou issued a verdict requiring the park to compensate Guo a total of 1,038 yuan for damages and transportation costs, and also required the deletion of any data on his facial features, including photographs, that were provided when he applied for the initial fingerprint-activated card.
And Hangzhou is the first city to pass legislation on facial recognition. Indeed, you may not have even noticed, but as facial recognition spreads across the country like wildfire, these systems with local security guards who bark at residents over loudspeakers, this is even being carried out in “extralegal” circumstances…
Two months ago, my neighborhood began a rushed campaign to record facial data for the recognition system. Though it wasn’t technically mandatory for residents, if your face wasn’t recorded then you’d be unable to enter your building and would have to wait for someone who was in the system and then sneak in behind them. If, by some misfortune, that person also didn’t have their face recorded, then you’d both just have to wait for the next person.
In the end, we all had no choice but to acquiesce obediently. Just how does a facial recognition system that professes to “convenience residents” get implemented? Why, by tormenting them, of course. Torment residents enough and they’ll eventually submit and agree to have their faces recorded.
In my district what’s most bewildering is the fact that, even though everyone eventually registered, the recognition camera would malfunction often leaving residents stranded waiting for someone to let them in. Inconvenience has reached new heights.
Therefore, I almost forgot to mention, if “facial recognition” were a person with a face, I’d give him a good slap. Who cares if he’s some powerful leader or emperor—if I’m going to die, I’d rather go out with my “face” intact.
Speaking of the danger and risk brought by facial recognition, it’s not merely one or two cases now.
In 2018, a senior in their nineties in Huanggang, Hubei, was similarly manhandled when they went from Wuhan to Hongan County to enroll in the annual social security validation program. As the office was located on the third floor without an elevator, the elder’s family had to procure a wheelchair and carry them up three flights of stairs…
In 2019, Shenfang, Sichuan province, a man stole over 20,000 yuan from his girlfriend, whom he met online, by using facial recognition verification on her while she was asleep.
In November 2019, the media reported that an AI company in San Diego used a 3D-printed mask to “hack” somebody’s face, and was not only able to complete payments on WeChat and Alipay, but also entered a train station by successfully passing the facial recognition system.
And last month in Huizhou, Guangdong province, a Mr. Chen was unable to inherit a sum of money from his late father because he couldn’t get past the facial recognition verification step. He was required to prove that “my dad is my dad,” and spent over seven months making numerous trips back and forth to the bank, notary, police station, and neighborhood committee—all to no avail.
In the end, Mr. Chen was only able to resolve the matter by appealing directly to the State Council Inspection Team.
So what do officials in some of these places actually think about facial recognition? That it’s some master of the one and only Truth? That without it the world would simply stop turning?
When it turns out to not be so convenient and a situation arises where the risks become readily apparent, do people have the right to choose not to live such an advanced lifestyle?
Isn’t it the case that once we had fingerprint technology, everybody had to register their prints, and so now with facial recognition, everybody also has to register their faces? That without this you’ll be unable to enter your residential community, unable to return home? Just who makes the final call over these communities built with our money?
In an age where electricity flows everywhere, are we not allowed to light candles?
Those in charge are in fact servants, and so they mustn’t always manage affairs from the perspective of their own expediency. Ultimately, they actually have to make life convenient for people, and they have to consider the people’s safety.
In an era where individual data is leaked frequently, where so-called “human-flesh” cyber-hunts are all the rage, the implementation of facial recognition should probably slow down a bit.
Back before there was facial recognition, the sky didn’t fall. Today, if we don’t use it, the sky’s also not going to fall.
Those who don’t want to be slaves to facial recognition should be given space to live. [Chinese]
Translation by Hamish.