China is shaping facial recognition standards – that’s not good

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ITEM: News emerged this week that China now requires new mobile phone users to submit a face scan for facial recognition. But that’s not as interesting – or as worrying – as the other news this week that China is actively trying to shape global standards work on facial recognition technology in ways that may encourage other countries to use it the same way China does.

This past Sunday, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) enacted a new rule it first announced back in September that mobile operators must use facial recognition and AI to ensure that the faces of any customer buying a new SIM card matches their ID documents. The official reason is protecting mobile customers from ID theft and fraud. But in the context of increasing use of facial recognition across China as a police surveillance tool – especially in Xinjiang – it’s also seen as an extension of China’s mass surveillance network.

Which is why, by itself, the news of mandatory facial recognition for SIM card buyers isn’t that big a shock – at least not in a country where facial recognition is already being deployed in other aspects of daily life. It’s the bigger picture overall that’s worrisome.

And that bigger picture appears to be extending outside of China. According to a report this week in the Financial Times – citing leaked documents – Chinese companies like ZTE, China Telecom and Dahua are proposing facial recognition standards to the International Telecommunication Union to shape the ITU’s work on formulating international standards for facial recognition.

Again, this by itself isn’t unusual – Chinese tech companies are involved in all kinds of standards development processes for ICT technologies. However, according to the FT report, the facial recognition submissions to the ITU are less about technology and more about recommending policy and use cases such as police surveillance, monitoring employees, and spotting specific targets in crowds.

This reportedly worries human rights groups who are concerned that developing nations targeted by China’s Belt and Road initiative – particularly in Africa and the Middle East – will be more likely to adopt both China’s facial recognition tech and accompanying surveillance use cases if they’re standard and endorsed by the ITU.

To be clear, China isn’t necessarily doing this to extend its surveillance capabilities outside its borders – it’s doing it to create markets for its domestically developed facial recognition technologies.

At the same time, however, China has been extending its domestic internet censorship practices overseas in various forms, from censoring social media apps like WeChat and TikTok, to putting pressure on companies who want to do business in China to avoid saying things that China doesn’t want them to say (with Tiffany’s, the NBA and Mercedes-Benz being recent examples). Meanwhile, a September report from Volexity revealed the extent to which China has been using spyware to target the Uyghurs diaspora.

So it’s little wonder human rights groups are concerned China may have some similar ambitions regarding facial recognition.

That concern isn’t just about Chinese companies working with the ITU on standards. A global study from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released in September found that at least 75 countries are “actively using AI technologies for surveillance purposes”. That includes smart city/safe city platforms (56 countries), facial recognition systems (64 countries), and smart policing (52 countries).

And while companies from France, Germany, Japan, and the US are supplying a significant amount of AI surveillance tech overseas, Chinese companies – including Huawei, Hikvision, Dahua, and ZTE – are by far the biggest exporters, the report says:

Technology linked to Chinese companies are found in at least sixty-three countries worldwide. Huawei alone is responsible for providing AI surveillance technology to at least fifty countries. There is also considerable overlap between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and AI surveillance—thirty-six out of eighty-six BRI countries also contain significant AI surveillance technology.

Moreover, the report says, Chinese companies typically sweeten the deal for governments of those countries in the form of “soft loans” so they can afford to buy their solutions:

These tactics are particularly relevant in countries like Kenya, Laos, Mongolia, Uganda, and Uzbekistan—which otherwise might not access this technology. This raises troubling questions about the extent to which the Chinese government is subsidizing the purchase of advanced repressive technology.

To be fair, the countries adopting facial recognition and other AI-powered surveillance tech aren’t exactly being suckered or strong-armed into it. Even liberal democracies are embracing AI surveillance in a major way in some form or other.

But as the Carnegie report notes, AI-powered surveillance comes with its own ethical baggage regardless of what country the vendor comes from, such as error rates, false positives, racial bias, crime prediction and more:

Disquieting questions are surfacing regarding the accuracy, fairness, methodological consistency, and prejudicial impact of advanced surveillance technologies. Governments have an obligation to provide better answers and fuller transparency about how they will use these new intrusive tools.

So for me, facial recognition for buying SIMs in China is a symptom of a far greater problem that is by no means confined within China’s borders.

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