8 November 2019
It is an issue that has become a matter of heated debate.
Prof Guo Bing says the Hangzhou Safari Park is “violating consumer protection law by compulsorily collecting visitors’ individual characteristics”, after it suddenly made facial recognition registration a mandatory requirement for visitor entrance.
The park has since compromised by offering visitors a choice between using the previous fingerprint system and high-tech facial recognition, China Daily reports.
The park is one of many institutions to introduce facial recognition at its entrances. China has been aggressively rolling out facial recognition in the past five years, originally as a means of boosting security but now as a means of bringing consumer convenience to people’s lives, particularly in e-payments.
However, since Prof Guo questioned the necessity of it, there have been bigger conversations about the extensive amount of data kept on citizens.
What happened at the park?
Prof Guo, a law professor at the Zhejiang Sci-Tech University in eastern China, is a season ticket holder at the Hangzhou Safari Park.
In previous years, he has used fingerprint recognition to enter. But on 17 October, he received a message telling him that the park’s system had been upgraded, and it had become mandatory for visitors to register their details using the facial recognition system.
“I clearly expressed my dissatisfaction with the collection of facial data,” he told popular news website The Paper. He said that he was willing to continue scanning with his fingerprints, but he was told that was not possible.
When he said that he would like to cancel his card, he was told he would not receive a full refund.
So on 28 October, he took the park to court.
The official China Daily newspaper said his case, which has been accepted by the Fuyang District People’s Court, was “the first court case involving the use of facial recognition in China”.
The case is reported as still ongoing.
Will he succeed?
Dr Mimi Zou, a Fangda Career Development Fellow in Chinese Commercial Law at the University of Oxford, says the case is very likely to be dismissed if Prof Guo continues to pursue it.
She says that, at present, “there is not a legally binding instrument that deals directly” with his claim, which is that the park is making collection of his biometric data a condition of entry, and therefore rendering his consent meaningless.
However, she says that there has been “a growing yet fragmented regulatory landscape of privacy and data protection laws in recent years”, as well as “a national voluntary standard on data privacy known as the Personal Information Security Specifications”.
Dr Zou tells the BBC that, although it is currently voluntary, it “lays a normative foundation for a more binding legal framework”.
- In Your Face: China’s all-seeing state
- Chinese man caught by facial recognition at pop concert
- Chinese police spot suspects with surveillance sunglasses
She says that several big tech companies like Tencent and Alipay have trialled the scheme based on its current standards.
“I believe the rapid development of these standards reflects the growing privacy concerns among the general public in relation to how non-state actors are collecting and using their personal data. We are seeing an increasing responsiveness of Chinese regulators in tackling these concerns,” she says.
But she notes that state surveillance is “the elephant in the room” in cases against commercial/business actors that involve the legal protection of Chinese people’s data or privacy rights.
“In this realm – and not just in China – there is no such thing as personal privacy.”