When companies first started rolling out facial recognition technology across China, some members of the public were enthused by the promise that it would bring benefits in areas like convenience and safety.
Now there is a growing sense that the rollout might be taking the level of scrutiny a step too far.
First was the news that Canon has developed a security camera that only admits employees to their workplace if it sees they are smiling when their faces are scanned.
If staff aren’t beaming beautifully, they are deemed to have come to work with the ‘wrong’ attitude and they won’t be allowed in until they pop a genuine grin.
“We are hoping the dull atmosphere caused by the epidemic will be relaxed by smiling faces,” Ehara Taisei, the vice president of Canon China explained.
The company said it was marketing the new product to businesses that provide a face-to-face service to customers, such as restaurants, hospitals and schools.
Yet news of the “smile scanner” infuriated many Chinese, who pointed out that the new technology wouldn’t be required if companies paid higher salaries and provided better working conditions.
“Don’t make us work 996, and then we might smile more,” fumed one irritated user on Sina Weibo (see WiC449 for more on the ‘996’ culture of longer working hours).
“Workers are already exploited, and now we can’t even express ourselves authentically?” wrote another. Others simply posted photos of people displaying ridiculous smiles, such as the Joker from the Batman comics and movies.
As incomes improve and the size of China’s labour force dwindles, workers are getting choosier about the kind of jobs they are willing to do. Under-40s in the urban job market are also more concerned with making time and space for a private life and they reject the idea that a company has the right to tell them how to plan their lives.
Even today some employers – especially hospitals and schools – still expect to have an influence on when female employees have children.
Other people are increasingly concerned about the use of smart technology to monitor the workplace.
Last year there was a public outcry when sanitation workers in Nanjing were made to wear tracker watches that sounded an alarm if the employee stayed in the same place for more than 20 minutes.
Another sign of the public’s concern is a new proposed law from Hangzhou that limits the use of facial recognition technology in residential compounds. If passed it will prevent real estate managers from forcing the usage of facial recognition and fingerprint technologies as access protocols, obliging them instead to provide non-biometric equivalents.
The draft legislation came about after a sudden spread of biometric entry-exit scanners, leading people to ask what was being done to keep their personal data safe.
“In the last two years, there have been more and more facial recognition apps rolled out, leading to obvious abuse,” says Guo Bing, a professor at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University and one of the campaigners for the law.
Guo told Beijing News that he is worried about the improper collection and sale of facial data. He has become something of a hero to people who want to see greater limits on the implementing of facial recognition technology across China. Last year he took a Hangzhou zoo to court for implementing facial recognition in its ticketing system without giving its visitors another option for entry.
In July last year Xinhua also reported that shopping platforms such as Taobao were hosting vendors who were openly selling facial recognition data for Rmb0.5 a piece. A tool that animated facial images could even be bought for just Rmb35 – allowing fraudsters to circumvent the security features in some apps.
China National Radio also ran comments by Tsinghua University Law School professor Lao Dongyan supporting the efforts to introduce a new law. “Too many companies have used the banner of public safety in abusing the technology,” he warned, recommending against the “wide-scale promotion” of facial recognition systems.
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