China's new regulations require Chinese telecom carriers to scan the faces of users registering new mobile phone services.
According to the Chinese government and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the new law is aimed at cracking down on fraud. It was first announced in September.
China’s three largest carriers are state-owned China Telecom, China Unicom and China Mobile, must now use facial recognition technology and other means to verify the identity of people opening new mobile phone accounts.
The Chinese government said in the notice that it took the step to “protect the legitimate rights and interest of citizens in cyberspace.” The ministry also added it wanted to curb down identity theft and resale of SIM cards.
China is the home to some of the world’s leaders in facial recognition software, including Megvii and SenseTime.
Face recognition is becoming a norm for authentication in daily services in the country such as for payments, subway rides, and loan approval.
Supermarkets, subway systems and airports in China already use facial recognition technology. Alibaba gives customers the option to pay using their face at its Hema supermarket chain and runs a hotel in its headquarters city of Hangzhou where guests can scan their face with their smartphones for advance check-in.
The metro systems of some major Chinese cities have announced they will use the technology, with government-owned newspaper China Daily saying Beijing will use it to “classify passengers” to allow for “different security check measures”.
In July, the Xinhua news agency said Beijing had, or was in the process of, installing facial recognition systems at the entrances of 59 public rental housing communities.
Chinese police are also known to have high tech surveillance gadgets such as glasses with built-in facial recognition.
The number of mobile phone users in China has surged in recent years. According to the China Internet Network Information Center, by June 30, 2019, there were 854 million internet users in China, while 99.1 percent of them accessed the internet via a mobile network. The number of mobile internet users from January to June increased by 30 million.
Imposters can also use illegal software to apply for mobile SIM cards by using stolen information. Similar cases have been reported across China, while in October, a citizen in Beijing told Beijing Youth Daily that his ID had been used by imposters to acquire 52 SIM cards, losing him a lot of money.
Based on statistics from the Ministry of Public Security, from 2015 to 2018, over 315,000 mobile fraud cases, causing a combined economic loss of over 4.47 billion RMB, were cracked across China. More than 322,000 illegal SIM cards were confiscated. Data showed that in 2018, over 811,000 telecom fraud cases were dealt with, up 35.5 percent year-on-year.
Some countries have restrained the use of this new technology due to privacy and accuracy concerns. In September, California lawmakers temporarily banned state and local law enforcement from using facial-recognition software in body cameras, as the most populous US state takes action against the technology.
Despite public opposition, facial recognition is already used around the world. The Amazon Rekognition, which can conduct facial analysis, has been sold and used by several US government agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as private entities, such as C-Span, a public service that provides proceedings of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, since its launch in 2016.