In mid-November, a video of a man wearing a helmet while visiting a real estate sales center in Jinan went viral on social media. The man claimed that he was trying to prevent the sales center from collecting his face image. It turned out that the video was staged, but it struck a nerve: China is worrying about face recognition. 

face recognition helmet man
A video claiming to show a man wearing a motorcycle helmet to avoid facial recognition at a CITY real estate agency went viral in MONTH 2020. It proved to be staged. (Screenshot: TechNode)

Face recognition technology was first commercialized in China in 2018. It is now used in stores for pay-by-face, in hotels and public transportation for identification checks, and even in schools for monitoring in-class behavior. In some places, face recognition is even mandatory or is the only way to enter a building. 

After the pandemic, the launch of the health code system has drawn more people’s attention to the impact of face recognition technology on daily life. Increasingly, mandatory face recognition is facing challenges, both from individuals and major media.. 

China’s first face recognition lawsuit

A lawsuit challenging mandatory face recognition in a park in Hangzhou recently ended in a small victory

On Oct. 17, 2019, Guo Bing, an associate law professor at Zhejiang University of Science and Technology, was planned to visit Hangzhou Safari Park when he received a text message. The park told him that its entry system had been upgraded to face recognition, and that all guests would  have to activate the system to enter. 

When Guo went to the park and saw staff using phones to scan people’s faces, he wanted to opt out—but the park refused to let him in, or give him his money back. After failed negotiation, Guo decided to sue the park for invasion of privacy and violating consumer rights and interests. 

After a year, on Nov. 20, 2020, the court in Hangzhou ruled in favor of Guo, finding that the park shouldn’t collect face and fingerprint data without customers’ consent. Guo got his money back for the ticket, and his ride to the park—RMB 1,038 (about $160).  The court also ordered the park to delete Guo’s personal information, including fingerprint and face data. However, the court rejected Guo’s other claims, saying that the park’s use of fingerprint and face recognition didn’t violate regulations and laws. 

Guo, arguing that the park should not be allowed to require visitors to use face recognition, is still appealing. 

Guo’s case has been widely discussed on social media, with comments breaking one-sidedly in his favor. Many people raised concern about the abuse application of face recognition technology. In response to news about Guo’s lawsuit, one Weibo commentator wrote: “My residential area requires us to enter with face recognition. It looks fancy and high-tech, but who knows when the property company will collect our face data and where they sell them to?” 

The law professor who won

Renwu, a Chinese magazine that specializes in profiles recently published a story about a Beijing law professor’s battle with her residential compound over face recognition technology. Readers may remember Renwu as the same publication that sparked outrage in September with an exposé on algorithms forcing delivery drivers to drive dangerously.

Trapped by face recognition


Dec. 15, 2020

In March of this year, Lao Dongyan discovered posters in the elevators of each unit in her residential compound requesting every resident to download an app and submit face data for entry system upgrade. Lao is a law professor at Tsinghua University. She has discovered that face recognition has been used in more and more scenarios-subway entrances for security checks, AI face-changing games on phones, and even the vending machines that sell coffee at her law school building require face payment. 

Lao knows the hidden threats of this technology. She did research and posted about them on a WeChat group of more than 200 people. A resident who was concerned about the matter invited her into another group chat of nearly 500 residents. There, what Lao posted gained more responses, and many residents joined her in expressing their concerns about the technology. Previously, the main dissatisfaction these residents had was: “Why do you want to collect information about my real estate certificate?”

On March 15, Lao wrote a detailed legal opinion, arguing that the compound’s behavior violated the current legal framework. She sent it to her property management department and neighborhood committee. 

One evening a few days later, the director of the neighborhood office called her and invited her to a discussion meeting together with staff from the property management department and neighborhood committee. Lao saw that they were mostly concerned about legal risks. When she told them that giving residents notice doesn’t mean they have consented, and acquiring data without consent is defined as illegal acquisition in criminal law, they asked how to avoid such risks.

Lao is most worried about data risk. She can’t imagine what motivation does the property management department have to maintain and protect the face data. She asked: “Who keeps the data and how to protect it?”

They gave Lao three options: store the data onat the local area network (LAN) of the property management company; hand it over to the convenience service center [ed: a local government office]; or give it to the police. At that time, many residents had already submitted their face data, and there was no conclusion as to how the data should be stored. The options they suggested also reflect the current status of domestic personal information protection: there is no real boundary between public and commercial organizations in the use and management of data. These aggravated Lao‘s concerns.

At the end of the discussion, the street office proposed three alternatives: residents who do not want to submit their face data can also use the key card, ID registration or mobile phone app to enter the compound.

When Lao shared her experience at a panel discussion about whether the residential compound should use the face recognition system, a guest praised her for fighting for her own rights. Lao said she just had to put up a fight.

Lao argued that the current capacity to manage risk is not up to the challenge of rapid technological iteration and commercialization. 

“The characteristic of the Internet era is that the problem will not appear in the place with the highest security level, but the place with the lowest level of security and the worst security capabilities,” Lao said.

More regulations issued

In response to the abuse of face recognition technology, many cities have issued policies to control it. In October, a draft amendment to Hangzhou’s property management regulations stipulates that property service providers should not force property owners to use shared facilities through biometric information such as fingerprints and face recognition. In late November, real estate sales centers in Nanjing were ordered to remove face recognition systems, in the first action of its kind in China. At the same time, some local governments began to protect face information with legislation. Tianjin announced regulations on Dec. 1, prohibiting local enterprises and public institutions, industry associations and chambers of commerce from collecting face, fingerprint, voice, and other biometric information starting Jan. 1, 2021. 

State media outlets have also issued warnings about the misuse of face recognition technologies. CCTV, China’s national tv broadcaster, has aired three shows related to personal information protection. And Party journal Banyuetan, also known as China Commentpublished an article criticizing the abuse of face recognition technology,

Face recognition is becoming rampant, and it’s time to rein it in 


Nov. 27, 2020

The abuse of face recognition technology is causing a loss of control over personal information collection. Despite the weak public awareness of personal information protection, many organizations blindly pursue face recognition identity authentication regardless of whether they are legitimate or necessary is also an important reason. In addition, data companies continue to promote face collection technologies to expand their business and increase profitability, which also lays hidden dangers for face information security. 

The development and application of technologies needs to be synchronized with relevant laws. It is necessary for laws to set boundaries.

China has probably got more face recognition than anywhere else in the world—but its love affair with the technology is getting complicated.

Shi Jiayi is the Shanghai-based visual reporter helping provide multimedia elements about China’s fast-changing technology and culture. She holds a B.A. in Convergence Journalism from the University...