A government website set up to provide an identity verification service has collapsed due to heavy traffic, and amid controversy over its legitimacy.
The site, which opened on Friday at www.nciic.com.cn, is run by the National Citizen Identity Information Center under the Ministry of Public Security. It was suspended at the weekend due to too many visitors, an announcement on the site said on Monday.
A member of the site's customer service team, who refused to give her name, said technicians were trying to fix the problem, but could not say when the site would reopen.
However, people can still access the information contained on the site by sending a mobile phone text message with the person's name and ID number to 10665110 or 5110, she said.
The woman would not say how many inquiries the site had received since Friday, but said: "Obviously, it's popular."
According to the user guide posted on the website, anyone can "verify" another person's identity simply by entering the relevant name and ID number.
If the two pieces of information match what is stored on the Ministry of Public Security's database, a confirmation message will appear together with a photograph of the person. If the ID number does not exist or does not match the name, the inquirer receives only a negative response.
Huang Mengsheng, a resident of Nanjing, who managed to access the online service before its collapse, said the whole process takes only a few seconds.
Each inquiry costs 5 yuan (75 cents), he said.
"I just wanted to know if the personal information my new housemaid from Sichuan had given me was true, and I found that it was," the 61-year-old said.
"It's quite convenient."
Lu Subing, deputy director of the ID information center, said earlier that the system had been introduced as a way to stop people from using fake identities for such things as online trading or renting an apartment.
Prior to being opened to the public, the system was used by government departments, financial institutions and telecom companies, he said.
Between 2006 and the end of last year, such organizations made more than 40 million inquiries, 1.6 million of which identified would-be fraudsters, according to the center.
Opinion is divided, however, on whether such information should be available to the public.
Beijing resident Li Nuoyan told China Daily: "For just 5 yuan anyone can access anyone else's picture. That's potentially risky."
In contrast, Wang Zongyu, a law professor at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said that while it might be better if the website did not show pictures, "it still can't be considered as a privacy violation, as ID cards carry photos anyway."
Others have simply questioned why they have to pay a fee to access the information.
The customer service worker said the 5 yuan charge had been set by Ministry of Finance and the National Development and Reform Commission.
"Maintaining a database of 1.3 billion people costs money," she said.