Facial-recognition technology has become embedded in China, from airports to hotels, e-commerce sites and even public toilets, but a law professor had enough when asked to scan his face at a safari park.
Guo Bing took the wildlife park to court, raising the temperature in a growing debate about privacy and abuse of personal data in an increasingly digitised society.
China’s government has thrown its support behind companies that develop facial recognition and artificial intelligence for commerce and security, part of a drive to become a world leader in advanced technologies.
Surveys have indicated a broad public willingness to surrender some privacy in exchange for the safety and convenience that technology can bring.
But that’s changing as the collection of biometric data such as fingerprints and facial scans mounts.
Domestic media have called Guo’s suit against the Hangzhou Safari Park in eastern China, filed in October, the first of its kind in the country, and the public reaction has exposed fears that technology is outpacing legal safeguards.
Online posts regarding the case on the popular Weibo platform have garnered more than 100 million views, with many users calling for a ban on collecting such data.
The sentiment stems in part from the rampant abuse of personal data in China, ranging from outright financial fraud to the common leaking of mobile phone numbers to phishing operations.
Deal with the devil
In a recent article posted online that generated wide discussion in China, Lao Dongyan, a law professor at prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, called abuse of facial recognition data “a deal with the devil”.
“The wanton promotion of facial-recognition technology will open Pandora’s box. The price we pay will be not only our privacy, but also the security we strive for,” Lao wrote.
Guo, a professor at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University in Hangzhou, said in his civil complaint that collection of data like facial scans, “if leaked, illegally provided or abused, will easily endanger consumers’ personal and property safety”.
A hearing date is yet to be announced. Guo could not be reached for comment.