Facial recognition further invades people’s lives after the regime introduced mandatory facial scans for all new customers signing up for mobile phone contracts.
by Sun Kairui
“Your identity document, please. Face the camera. Move your head. Now blink. Name random numbers in Mandarin,” a staff member was instructing a new customer at a telecommunications company in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
The new government requirement to scan faces of all new customers registering mobile phone numbers came into force on December 1, after the rule was passed into law in September. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced in a statement on September 27 that the measures are aimed at protecting “citizens’ legitimate rights and interests in cyberspace.”
China already extensively uses facial recognition to surveil its population. Ubiquitous cameras and other hi-tech equipment are monitoring people on the streets and even in their homes, are used to suppress ethnic minorities and people of faith. Therefore, the new measures for mobile phone users have raised concerns that the regime will use them as yet another tool to invade people’s privacy and control them.
Some telecom companies have reportedly started implementing the requirement to scan new customers’ faces even before the rule was enforced. An agent at China Unicom, a Beijing-based state-owned telecommunications operator, told Bitter Winter that he was asked by his superiors in July to install a new app on his mobile phone, with which he should not only photograph the IDs of all customers who register for new services but also take photos of their upper bodies and record them saying random numbers in Mandarin. All images are then transmitted to the public security database, the company, and the MIIT.
The agent said that some elderly customers don’t speak Mandarin, so it was a challenge for them to count, sometimes they had to repeat the process a dozen times to make sure that the counting corresponded to the required speed to record and verify their voices.
On October 14, China Unicom’s branch in Zhejiang’s Wenzhou city issued the Notice on Further Implementing the Provisions for the Registration of Real Identity Information of Phone Users. The document demands all company’s outlets in the city to apply the same rules of registering new customers for landlines, mobile and internet services: “ask for a valid identity document; use the identity identification device to complete the process of verification and registration, followed by an automatic input of the user’s identity information into the system; take and save photos of the users on the spot.”
As per the notice, based on China’s Anti-Terrorism Law and other state-issued documents, the rules are intended to “ensure national security and social stability,” “further protect the information online and secure personal cyber information.”
“It was very quick to activate a phone number before, just buy and go,” a China Unicom customer complained. “Now everything is so complicated. Forget it; I’m not buying the SIM card.”
A customer service employee at the state-owned company China Telecom in Zhejiang told Bitter Winter that the new procedure, which he called “live body verification,” is supposedly intended to ensure that people are registering new services with their real names.
A service agent of China Unicom in Zhejiang said that the business is slowing down because of the new rules. On top of that, he is under constant stress to be very diligent in following the instructions since personnel from the local Public Security Bureau often conduct secret investigations to make sure that telecom companies comply with the regulations. He could be punished for collecting identity information of users inaccurately or selling SIM cards to customers without verifying their identity.
All major China’s telecommunication companies have imposed steep penalties and fines on their operators and agents to ensure that the new government requirements are precisely implemented.
The China Unicom agent recalled that one of his colleagues didn’t take photos as required when he activated the phone number for a new customer and was fined 5,000 RMB (about $ 710). The mistake was noticed after the information was transmitted to the company, the Public Security Bureau, and the MIIT.
According to a source at the Wenzhou branch of China Mobile, another large state-owned mobile service company, franchise operators who fail to comply with the rules of registering new customers may lose the deposit, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 RMB (about $ 710 to 1,420), that they give the company before starting the business. They are also in danger of having their licenses revoked.
“The reason why the government is doing this is to monitor people’s every word and move, tying us with invisible shackles,” a mobile company customer in Wenzhou commented. “It wants to put everyone under its control 24/7, taking away all rights and freedoms from the citizens.”