Battle for Privacy Rights: China to Face its First Facial Recognition Related Court Case

facial recognition (source: shutterstock)

A Chinese wildlife park in Hangzhou was sued by a Chinese law professor after using a facial recognition system that scans all visitors to the park. According to Chinese media Beijing Youth Daily, a district court in Hangzhou has taken on the controversial case.

This is the first case in China related to facial recognition systems, and is believed to become an important precedent for future cases related to surveillance technologies. The case originated when professor Guo Bing purchased an annual pass for visiting the Hangzhou Safari Park in April 2019. However, on October 17, 2019, Guo was notified that instead of using the traditional fingerprint authentication method to prove the cardholder’s identity, the wildlife park would start implementing a facial recognition system. Those who did not register in the system would not be allowed to enter the park. Hangzhou Safari Park refused to offer Guo a refund.

Guo decided to take the safari park to court, alleging the park breached the clauses under the Chinese Consumer Rights Protection Acts. Guo pointed out that Hangzhou Safari failed to receive his consent before changing the policies on receiving additional biometric information from the annual pass holders.

Facing the pending legal case, Hangzhou Safari Park said that the initial purpose for implementing the facial recognition system was to increase the efficiency at the entrance. A spokesperson from the park claimed that the original fingerprint system occasionally led to delays. Additionally, most annual pass users accepted the changes, and complied with the safari management team on rendering their facial biometric information.

The park also offered a temporary solution amid the on-going controversy. Annual pass holders who do not wish to submit their information can come into the annual pass center to verify their identities before entering the park. According to Chinese media Sixth Tone, the facility has no plans on cancelling the facial recognition system.

While the legal proceedings have yet to come to a conclusion, legal experts are siding with Professor Guo on the upcoming case. Professor Xue Jun, the associate Dean from Peking University Law School, told reporters from Beijing Youth Daily that biometric information is key life-long information. Any abuse of that information could lead to irrevocable damages. Hangzhou Safari implemented the facial recognition system in the middle of the contract with Professor Guo, and this should be regarded as changing the contract. While the two parties cannot reach an agreement, the park needs to partially refund the unfulfilled contracts to avoid breaching the agreements.

Other Chinese media also praised professor Guo for stepping up for his consumer rights. Chinese local media YanZhao Evening News argued that commercial entities do not necessarily have the rights to collect biometric information from consumers using the excuse of convenience. Facial recognition systems should be regarded as a double-edged sword and the legal systems should come up with clear boundaries to protect citizens’ rights and privacy.

A Huge Gray Area

While China is experiencing some of the most rapid and significant developments in technology, many of the side effects, backlashes, and problems from technological development remain unaddressed and unsolved. While the first legal challenge related to facial recognition system stems from the safari park, the invasive and innovative technologies have been used in many other places, such as schools, banks, and are even proposed to be used in subway security checks.

While facial recognition might be a revolutionary idea that may change the way we live our lives, the social and legal concerns that the technology will bring should never be underestimated. Facial recognition might facilitate the complicated processes of dealing with identification in areas such as immigration checkpoints and financial transactions. However, any possible error may cause disastrous outcomes, such as serious user data breaches that could potentially lead to irrevocable financial losses and security compromises.

Tech practitioners in China are yet to come to a clear consensus on the potential risks of facial recognition technologies and on respecting users’ privacy. In March 2018, Robin Li, the Chief Executive Officer of Chinese Searching Engine Baidu said that Chinese Internet Users are open to exchange their privacy for convenience. While the comment received a ton of opposition, it is nevertheless a reality in the Chinese tech industry in current days. Innovative products often neglect the need to protect user privacy, and are often more eager to collect data from their users for corporate interests and gains.

The more concerning issue related to facial recognition, and many other trending technologies, is the lack of transparency and regulation of the current state. With no clear future goals and direction, the technology may either greatly benefit the well-being of the human race, or turn into a gigantic surveillance tool used to suppress the vast majority of the population.