The new draft regulation on face recognition technology is presented as aligning China with international democratic privacy protection standards. Only, it is not true.
by Zhou Kexin
The Cyberspace Administration of China has published for comments a draft “Regulations on the Safety Management of Face Recognition Technology Applications.” Comments can be sent to the Administration before September 7, 2023. As readers of “Bitter Winter” know, pre-publication of draft laws for comments is a cosmetic exercise in pseudo-democracy. Comments are rarely taken into account, except when from the point of view of human rights they make a bad draft law even worse.
The new draft law has been presented as an advanced text, aligning China with the best-practice privacy protection standards in the world. In fact, several limitations to the use of face recognition technology are introduced. The technology should be used only when the use is justified and necessary. Face recognition devices should not be installed in “hotel rooms, public bathrooms, changing rooms, restrooms, and other places that may infringe on the privacy of citizens” (that such a provision is needed indicates that it is indeed possible in China that you are spied by a camera with face recognition technology even in your hotel room or inside a public toilet).
Since scandals about their production of facial recognition technology identifying Uyghurs have led companies such as Hikvision to be banned in the Unites States and have their activities limited elsewhere, the draft regulation states that using the system “to analyze personal race, ethnicity, or religion” is prohibited.
Only, as the less naïve media and netizens have noted, there is a hole in the privacy protection net created by the draft regulation, and it is a big hole. All the limitations to the use of visual recognition technologies can be overcome by Public Security for national security reasons.
Since China is a security-oriented country, where almost everything is a national security issue, the proposed limitations would apply only to private companies and low-level government agencies outside of the public security field. In other words, if a more or less private supermarket or bank wants to use facial recognition to identify “bad” clients, it would be subject to certain limitations. But if the Public Security declares that facial recognition is needed for national security purposes, business will continue as usual, including by using the technology to identify Uyghurs and members of other ethnic minorities, and persecute certain religious groups. Meanwhile, the CCP will try to sell the world the story that the privacy of Chinese citizens is now fully protected against the intrusion of facial recognition technology. The story is not true.