Caixin
Jul 29, 2021 03:50 PM
CHINA

China’s Top Court Rules Facial Recognition Without Consent Is Illegal in Civil Cases

A facial recognition machine at the Beijing Daxing International Airport. Photo: VCG
A facial recognition machine at the Beijing Daxing International Airport. Photo: VCG

China’s Supreme People’s Court on Wednesday ruled in a judicial interpretation that using facial recognition technology without consent would violate law in civil cases, amid rising concerns about the technology’s misuse in public venues and residential compounds.

The judicial interpretation said violating the law and regulations governing the use of facial verification, recognition or analysis technology in public venues, such as shopping malls, hotels and banks, infringes on users’ rights and interests.

It also said residential property managers should obtain a consent from property owners and tenants before collecting and using their facial information via the technology. For those who refuse to do so, managers should provide alternative verification methods.

The release is the country’s latest effort to protect residents’ personal information, including facial information, and punish violators, according to a statement (link in Chinese) on the ruling.

China in recent years has witnessed a growing number of cases where facial recognition has been abused to infringe on individuals’ rights and interests, arousing widespread public concern, Yang Wanming, vice president of the country’s top court, said at a press conference Wednesday.

According to a 2020 survey (link in Chinese) by the Personal Information Protection Task Force on Apps, 94.07% of the more than 20,000 respondents had used facial recognition of some sort. Of those polled, about a third said they had suffered economic losses or privacy violations due to the leakage or misuse of their facial information.

Yang said some “famous stores” used the technology to collect consumers’ facial information without their consent to analyze their gender, age and mood so that they could tailor marketing strategies at individual consumers.

Meanwhile, some property management firms “compulsively” made facial recognition the only verification method for residents to enter and leave their communities or residential buildings. In such cases, property managers required residents to input their facial data, while those whose faces couldn’t be machine-verified were barred from accessing to their communities, said Guo Feng, deputy chief of the supreme court’s research office.

Such behavior “seriously damages” individuals’ personal rights and property rights, and undermines social order, making regulations urgently needed, Guo said.

Applications must not “forcibly” request non-essential personal information, said Chen Longye, another official at the court. For those who want to collect facial data, they must ask individuals for specific consent covering each data processing activity, rather than notifying them with general consent methods, he said.

Facial recognition technology is widely used in China. It identifies individuals by capturing visual information about their facial features and comparing it against a database of images to verify identities.

In April, China released a detailed draft of national standards to regulate the use and protection on facial recognition data, seeking public comment. The comment period has closed, but the draft is still waiting for review and approval (link in Chinese) before its publication.

Contact reporter Wang Xintong (xintongwang@caixin.com) and editor Lu Zhenhua (zhenhualu@caixin.com)

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