Chinese school faces backlash over use of facial recognition scanners

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Since 2019, Chinese schools have been deploying facial recognition systems as part of a government “smart campuses” campaign. Now some parents are resisting, arguing that the technology endangers their children’s privacy.

On Thursday, a relative named Tan job a complaint on a government website in Badong County, a remote part of central Hubei province. The post accused a local college of forcing students to use facial recognition scanners to make purchases on campus.

Jingxin Youyi College has been charging students through the system, which has been operated by Chinese financial technology giant Alipay, since December, according to the post. Tan also posted a complaint on the government website when the scanners were first installed, saying the system could pose a privacy risk if students’ facial data were leaked.

Several Chinese media have published articles on Tan’s complaint in recent days, with criticism arguing the potential privacy issues created by such facial recognition systems outweigh the benefits.

Middle School responded that the Alipay system solves a number of problems, such as students losing their campus cards and spending money on “irrational” things like internet cafes. He insisted that using the system is voluntary, but “students and teachers all think it’s a good idea”.

Tan, however, later doubled down on his claims that the system is compulsory, saying in another post that teachers at the school informed him that it was.

Students and teachers all believe the system is a good idea.

According to Alipay, the facial recognition system — dubbed “One Face Pass” — is designed for use in elementary and middle schools. The technology can be used to verify student checks and process payments, with students required to provide their facial data and parents’ banking information.

It is unclear how many Chinese schools have installed One Face Pass systems. Alipay had not responded to Sixth Tone’s request for comment at the time of publication.

The school added that its use of the One Face Pass system is in line with China’s “smart campus” initiative – a policy originally proposed by the country’s education authorities in 2019. The plan encourages Chinese campuses are using digital technologies to manage students in a wide range of scenarios, from entering classrooms to borrowing library books.

Facial recognition has become a lucrative industry in China in recent years. Schools use the technology to monitor students, police use it to detect potential suspects, and gaming companies apply it to stop underage gambling late at night.

The number of face scanners installed in China grown up 30% per year on average between 2010 and 2018, according to an industry white paper. The market is expected to reach 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) by 2024.

The Chinese public seems wary of the growing presence of technology in daily life: in a 2020 survey, more than 60% of respondents noted facial recognition systems were overused and more than 30% said their facial information had been leaked or exploited.

The government is still developing a regulatory framework to control the potential harm caused by the technology. Last July, the Supreme Court of China published for the first time a document explaining in which scenarios the use of facial recognition can be considered a violation of privacy, setting a precedent for future legal disputes in this area. .

Duan Weiwen, a research director at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who works on the philosophy of science and technology, told Sixth Tone that schools should exercise caution when collecting biometric information from minors.

Under China’s recently passed Personal Information Protection Law, a person’s facial data and all data relating to minors are classified as “sensitive personal information”. This means that it can only be collected after a strict evaluation, the institution having to justify the purpose and the need for its collection.

“Educational authorities need to be fully aware of the potential ethical risks and long-term pitfalls caused by the misuse of facial recognition, rather than simply pursuing efficiency,” Duan said.

Publisher: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: A woman uses a facial recognition payment system, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, October 12, 2016. VCG)

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