China is taking every measure it can to verify the identities of its over 850 million mobile internet users.
From Dec. 1, people applying for new mobile and data services will have to have their faces scanned by telecom providers, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said in a Sept. 27 statement (link in Chinese).
MIIT said the step was part of its efforts to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of citizens in the cyberspace” and to control phone and internet fraud. In addition to the facial-recognition test, phone users are also banned from passing their mobile phone numbers to others, and encouraged to check if numbers are registered under their name without their consent.
Most countries require some form of ID to sign up for mobile phone contracts—versus for prepaid services—but the facial-recognition requirement seems to be a first. In China, it’s only the latest example of the technology’s embrace by a government that is using it for everything from catching jaywalkers to nabbing criminals at concerts to social profiling, even as other countries go slow due to concerns over privacy and human rights. The new decree is an upgrade of China’s real-name registration system for mobile phone users launched in 2013, which requires people to have their national IDs checked and photos taken by carriers to get a new number. The facial-recognition step will match the image against the person’s stored ID.
Earlier rules also said people who apply online via operators’ websites have to submit a short video (link in Chinese) of themselves to prove they are the same person as in the ID. Currently, almost all mobile phone users in China have been registered under people’s real names, according to MIIT.
The new regulation comes as Beijing tightens its control over the internet, which most people in China access on their mobiles, seeing it as a vital tool of social control. Chinese president Xi Jinping has promoted the idea of “cyber sovereignty,” asking other countries to respect China’s internet governance practices, which have seen major international sites like Facebook and Twitter blocked, and even personal messaging communications censored.
While the technology ministry said enhancing protection for ordinary phone users was one of the aims of the new order, that reason didn’t appear to convince Chinese internet users, who say it could contribute to more personal information leakage, and is just downright invasive.
“How many years passed since the real-name registration system has been implemented? Scam and sales phone calls still have not been stopped! Gathering citizen’s information excessively like this is a violation of people’s civic rights,” one user said under the news, with this comment being liked over 1,000 times.
In March, a Chinese database containing hundreds of millions of private chat logs on six Chinese messaging apps including WeChat and QQ, both operated by Tencent, was leaked online and could be accessed by anyone who searched for the IP address of the database, according to Victor Gevers, a researcher working for nonprofit cyber security firm GDI Foundation. More recently, the terms and conditions of use of popular face-swapping Chinese app Zaobao sparked concerns about privacy, and eventually led to an order from MIIT for the app to enhance its protection of user data.