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China Requires Citizens to Complete Facial Recognition Scans to Obtain Mobile Phone Service

Visitors are seen on a screen displaying facial recognition technology at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) Asia 2019 in Shanghai, China June 11, 2019. (Aly Song/Reuters)

China implemented a policy on Sunday that requires citizens to complete facial recognition scans in order to obtain new mobile phone services, further increasing the ability of the government to track its citizens.

The policy, which was announced in September, mandates facial recognition for new users of China’s telecommunications providers, including China Mobile Ltd., China Telecom Corp., and China Unicom. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said in its announcement of the policy that the move would prevent telephone fraud and illegal transfer of SIM cards.

“From the individual standpoint, it is a little scary because it feels like you don’t have a lot of privacy,” Ben Cavender, a managing director at China Market Research Group, told the Wall Street Journal. “There is a pervasive sense of someone knowing what you’re doing at all times.”

China’s widespread use of facial recognition software has come under scrutiny after numerous reports that the technology is being used to silence dissidents and carry out human rights abuses, particularly in the detention of Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region. Over one million inhabitants of the region have been imprisoned in reeducation camps where they are reportedly subjected to ideological indoctrination and torture.

Several U.S. companies have developed and profited from the sale of technology critical to surveillance infrastructure in China, including Intel Corp. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. The market for such technology in China reached $10.6 billion in 2018, with half of purchases coming from the government, according to the International Data Corporation.

Currently, Chinese citizens can board planes, enter certain buildings and pay for merchandise in stores by scanning their faces.

In October, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sanctions on Chinese officials and companies involved in the repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

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