In rural China, facial recognition is mandatory to receive your pension

Videos on the Chinese social media network Douyin show elderly people having their faces scanned by bank employees in order to activate their social security cards.
Videos on the Chinese social media network Douyin show elderly people having their faces scanned by bank employees in order to activate their social security cards. © Douyin

Videos shared on the Chinese social media Douyin show bank staff in a village in China scanning the faces of elderly people, which would then allow them to access their pension and health insurance. The use of facial recognition to access bank services is becoming more and more common in China, and although Chinese citizens generally don't see it as a bad thing, many specialists are sounding the alarm on what the practice could mean for data protection.

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An elderly woman sits opposite a man in a white shirt who is using a tablet to scan her face. The tablet gives instructions in Mandarin, which the man then repeats in a local dialect used in the central-western regions of China. Another man uses a hand-held machine to read what looks like an ID card. This video, published on June 25, 2021, is one of several that have alarmed social media users and ignited concerns that facial recognition could also be used for surveillance.

These two videos, published on June 25, 2021, have been circulating in social media groups dedicated to the protection of Uighur communities.

These videos contain several clues to explain what’s going on. The ID card reader held by the man in the foreground of the video has the logo of the company Centerm. On Centerm’s website, we can find the same device and what it’s used for: carrying out banking services. There's another logo, in red and green, on the device’s screen: the logo of the Rural Credit Union of China (农村信用合作社), a Chinese bank with many branches in rural China.  

On the left, a screen capture of one of the videos showing one of these devices. On the right, the logo of the Rural Credit Union of China bank.
On the left, a screen capture of one of the videos showing one of these devices. On the right, the logo of the Rural Credit Union of China bank. Observers

So why are bank staff visiting elderly customers at home and scanning their faces? We collaborated with amateur fact-checker and investigative journalist Pangar-Ban, who specialises in topics relating to China, to find out more. We found a video filmed a few minutes before or after one of the videos above. It was published on June 22, 2021 on the social media network Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok. The title reads, "The Longxing branch offers a door-to-door service to help elderly people with reduced mobility receive their cards".

The same user, who appears to be a bank employee who carries out this door-to-door service, published another, similar video, in which he says that the employees are delivering a social security card to clients. With this card, citizens can access their pensions, health insurance and unemployment benefits.

This video was published on the Chinese social media network Douyin on June 22, 2021.

'The risk is that data can be collected and used without much obligation to protect them'

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to a development economist who has worked on the rollout of fintech in rural China, on the condition of anonymity. She confirmed what is happening in the video: one of the men activates the woman's social security card (blue) after checking her ID card (grey). The other man uses the tablet to films the woman, who has to turn her head according to specific instructions, to prove that she’s a real person.

The economist we spoke to explained that the use of facial recognition technology helps people living in rural China to overcome some of the difficulties necessary to access social security benefits.

The social security card contains information [about the recipient] and also plays a financial role, because it enables them to access money. To have access to the service, you have to activate your card in a certain bank branch. This can be difficult for elderly people or for those who don’t have access to banking services.

It’s difficult for old people in rural areas to handle the process [of activating the card using facial recognition]. But they’re not necessarily perturbed by this new technology. The most important thing for them is to not miss out on the social security benefits that they are entitled to. In any case, everyone who uses banking services in China has to use facial recognition technology.

The idea, according to the government, is to make this social security system work for everyone. If it’s linked to an ID card and bank details, it will be easier to manage digitally, more reliable and also easier to verify.

There's evidence to suggest that many Chinese citizens are supportive of facial recognition technology: 67%, of Chinese respondents “strongly” accepted or “somewhat” accepted the use of facial recognition technology, compared to only 38% of Germans, according to a paper published on March 26, 2021 in the scientific journal Public Understanding of Science.

But the practice doesn’t sit easily with everyone in China. In 2019, Guo Bing, a law professor in Hangzhou, took a wildlife park to court for excessive use of facial recognition technology and won

For Maya Wang, a China specialist at Human Rights Watch, the main risk associated with facial recognition technology used by non-state actors, such as banks, is data protection.

It’s not clear whether the participants [in the videos] understand what information is being collected or how it can be used. The risk with private entities is that data can be collected and used without much obligation to protect it, and without a way of stopping the data from being shared for uses beyond that for which it was collected in the first place.

There’s not necessarily any risk in terms of surveillance, because the police already have photos of citizens and plenty of other data anyway. However, like in a lot of countries across the world, if a private entity collects my personal data in order to provide a service, I have the right to know that this information will only be used to provide that service.

'There are no limits to what the state can do with personal data'

The People’s Supreme Court of China used Guo Bing’s case to issue a directive on the use of facial recognition technology by private companies on July 28, 2021. If a private company wants to use the technology, it has to obtain the consent of users, and an alternative has to be offered in case of refusal.

In August, China’s National People’s Congress passed a similar law designed to protect online personal data privacy, which will come into force on November 1.

Samantha Hoffman, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who has researched the way that China’s tech giants collect data, says that the problem lies in the fact that the new law doesn’t apply to the state’s use of personal data.

The law on personal data protection may be effective to a certain degree, but the most important point is that it doesn’t limit the state’s power.

This law reinforces the idea that the Chinese Communist Party presides over the creation of a Chinese data protection system and decides on technical standards concerning data security. It places the concept of data protection in the context of state security: the overarching idea is to protect and extend the power of the Party, even if it is to the detriment of the protection of individuals’ private lives.

Facial recognition technology has become a daily occurrence in China: in shopping centres, customers can pay simply by scanning their face. Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, told the Guardian that “the state could use this data for their own purposes, such as surveillance, monitoring, the tracking of political dissidents, social and information control [and] ethnic profiling”.

In the United States, the use of facial recognition technology in Colorado, California and the state of New York to access unemployment benefits has been subject to fierce criticism. Some people have been unable to access their benefits after technical problems.

Amnesty International launched a campaign in January 2021 calling to ban facial recognition systems across the world. “Facial recognition systems are a form of mass surveillance that violate the right to privacy,” the organisation wrote in a press release.