China Consumer

Trial by TV

Kohler and Max Mara ‘shamed’ in CCTV show


Got some unwanted attention too

It’s called a gala – but for the companies cited in the annual ‘315’ consumer rights show – broadcast by state television channel CCTV on Monday – it is anything but a celebration.

This year the primary theme was the protection of personal data – think facial recognition technology, the leaking of employment resumes and dodgy malware that hoovers information from smartphones.

Bathroom fixture maker Kohler was one of the companies named and shamed. In one part of the show an employee was heard boasting how the facial recognition technology it had installed in their stores helped the brand meet sales targets. “The camera can even tell the mood of the consumer,” added the undercover CCTV reporter, in explaining how the technology was used.

Clothing label Max Mara and German carmaker BMW were accused of installing similar systems that stored shoppers’ facial identity, age, gender and purchasing habits.

The revelations were widely shared online. According to China Daily, a hashtag relating to the gala had 5.35 billion views on Sina Weibo by 7pm the following day.

That’s why Kohler and BMW soon issued statements saying they would remove the systems from their showrooms. Max Mara said it only used facial recognition to count the number of customers in stores and that it doesn’t collect their personal data.

CCTV also called out the three Chinese companies providing the surveillance systems – Ovopark, Ulucu and Reconova Technologies.

China’s new Civil Code – which came into force in January – says that biometric data, including facial scans, should be considered personal information, and as such should not be used for commercial purposes without the permission of the party to which it belongs.

“Big Data, the Internet Plus, and artificial intelligence all represent the future, but they cannot be used for fraud, dishonesty, or infringement of consumer rights under the banner of ‘new industries’,” CCTV said.

“Companies can use Big Data to find business opportunities, but they cannot collect and abuse it arbitrarily in a scenario where consumers are not informed,” it added.

China’s three most popular job-seeking websites Zhaopin, 51Job and Tongdao Lepin were also given a hard time by broadcaster CCTV.

Potential recruits upload their information for free and the platforms typically charge up to Rmb100 to view suitable resumes. However, access to data appears to be poorly controlled and one recruiter explained he was able to download huge swathes of data which could then be resold online for about Rmb7 per resume. The documents contained the applicants’ photos, ID card numbers, personal addresses and employment histories. All three recruitment platforms have now pledged to investigate and upgrade their security.

It was exposed too that smartphone apps that claim to clean up your device could actually syphon off your personal data as well.

CCTV named four popular apps including Smart Cleaner and Mobile Manager Pro during the gala. All have now been withdrawn from Chinese Android app stores, as the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology tasked local authorities to investigate the malpractice.

World Consumers Rights Day began in 1983 and was inspired by a speech given to Congress on March 15, 1962 by US President John F Kennedy. China began to observe the day in 1986, after the government established the China Consumers Association.

CCTV’s 315 Gala – so called because of the date, March 15 – goes out every year and can have such an influence that some companies prepare press statements ahead of the show in case they are criticised.

In a segment on this year’s show CCTV explained how far its journalists go to probe firms. One reporter recalled going undercover as a salesman at a car dealership a few years ago. After finding out that he needed to get promoted to get access to the information he required, he worked doubly hard and became a vice-director managing a dozen people. “My editor called me every day to make sure I had not ‘defected’ to the other side for the higher salary,” he laughed.

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