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China's endeavor to promote facial recognition: open attitudes boost technological advancement and cybersecurity

By Kou Jie | People's Daily Online | Updated: 2019-12-04 09:33
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New mobile phone users in China are now required to verify their identity via facial recognition, a move that has received mixed reactions. While the majority hail the gesture as a better way to tackle cybercrime, others have expressed concern over privacy and security issues.

The new rules, outlined by China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, came into effect on Dec. 1. In addition to providing national identification card information, users are now required to submit facial scans to ensure their devices are linked to their real identities.

"The illegal use of personal information has now become a global threat. The old way of only submitting ID card data is not efficient enough to stop imposters from stealing and misusing personal information. It is time to introduce new measures," Xie Jiangyong, an associate professor at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, told People's Daily Online.

Echoing Xie, Qin An, director of the Beijing-based Institute of China Cyberspace Strategy, noted that as a leading power in mobile networks, China's new move could provide the world an alternative to better tackle telecom fraud and internet crimes.

"Some people or nations are scared of facial recognition, fearing the abuse of personal information. No matter what we think, technological advancement will always be there. We should better use and regulate facial recognition technology rather than be afraid of it," said Qin An.

Stringent regulations prompted by threats

Due to its advancement in internet infrastructure construction, 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, more than triple the population of New York City.

The swift development of mobile networks has led to an increase in online fraud and cybercrime. In 2016, Xu Yuyu, an 18-year-old university candidate from Linyi, Shandong Province, died of cardiac arrest after being conned out of 9,900 RMB she had saved for her college tuition. The case made headlines as the scammers used fake IDs to acquire mobile phone numbers and posed as educational officials to fool the victim.

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.

"The illegal collection and trade of personal information via mobile networks have become major issues in China. Due to the advancement of information technologies, ID registration cannot guarantee the security of your personal information, meaning imposters can use fake IDs to commit online crimes easily," said Xie.

According to Qin, with users uploading their pictures and vital information online, information leakage and misuse are unavoidable. Instead of banning new technologies such as facial recognition, the government should resort to better legal and technological methods to regulate the collection and use of personal information.

"Without the government's support to tackle personal information misusage, the problem will become even more severe. Unlike ID, biological information such as facial features are unchangeable, thus it's even more urgent to regulate such use of information," Qin added.

Unstoppable trend

Compared to China's open attitudes towards the use of facial recognition, 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.

"The California case is not common. The mass use of AI technology is an unstoppable trend, and [the government] should ensure information security with better legal and technological measures rather than restraining the use of new technologies," said Xie.

Despite some public opposition, facial recognition is already used around the world. Cloud-based software 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.

According to experts, the public's distrust and misunderstanding in some western countries are major factors that hinder the introduction of new technologies into social services, as they believe the use of new technologies is to restrict or even violate their privacy and freedom.

The Chinese public, on the other hand, shows a different attitude. According to a 2018 survey conducted by Penguin Intelligence, Tencent's internet research center, 81.4 percent of 1,285 respondents feel safe to store their information on government websites. Based on statistics provided by Guangdong Cyber Security Association, over 90 percent of respondents expressed their support to the government to strengthen cybersecurity management.

In addition to positive public opinion, China's leading tech power in facial recognition has also paved the way for the technology's further use. In 2018, the facial recognition algorithm solutions offered by Chinese AI startups took the top five spots on the leader board for the Facial Recognition Vendor Test organized by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology.

"Facial recognition technology can serve as a shield to protect information security, creating new industries. It can improve the efficiency of social services, providing conveniences to the public," said Qin, who added that privacy and information security should always be the priority when using facial recognition technologies.

So far, China has issued several laws and standards regulating government use of facial recognition technologies, as well as protecting privacy and information security, including the China Internet Security Law implemented in 2017, and the Personal Information Protection Standard in 2018.

"The National People's Congress is now studying the possibility of issuing a new personal information protection law. With the development of facial recognition technologies in China, further legal support will be provided to protect the privacy of citizens," said Xie.

Qin added that more scientific research has also been conducted in China to improve the accuracy and efficiency of facial recognition technologies, providing more technological methods to tackle misuse of personal information.

"Open attitudes towards new technologies are beneficial for the public, while better legal and technological protection can give the public a sense of security in a cyber era," said Qin.

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