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Despite concerns in the West, China embraces facial recognition

Cultural differences may be behind varied approaches

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

When Apple unveiled the iPhone X last year, one feature got people talking: Face ID.

Unlocking your phone by having your face scanned attracted a lot of buzz, but also plenty of worries. Creepy and scary were two of the most commonly used words to describe the technology.
But in China, facial recognition carries no such stigma. It accounts for a major portion of the money going into AI startups ( which is already a larger pool than in the US). And it's quickly becoming a part of everyday lives, found in banks, restaurants, and airports.
Part of the difference is cultural. Unlike in the West, in China privacy is a relatively recent concept. Historically, individual privacy was a privilege reserved only for the most powerful few. It wasn’t until last year ( when a cybersecurity law came into effect) that the country had legislation protecting personal data.
The looser regulatory environment also plays a part. In general, researchers in China have greater leeway to experiment. With gene-editing technology for instance, China allows a hospital’s own ethics committee to approve research on humans -- without the need for approval from authorities.
But the biggest reason may have to do with the government itself. Under an expansive plan known as Xue Liang, or “sharp eyes”, it’s building a network of street cameras that allow everyone from cops to stay-at-home grandmothers to monitor what’s going on inside cities. The Ministry of Public Security is working with Beijing-based facial recognition startup Megvii on a system that has reportedly helped the police arrest more than 4,000 people.
On the other side of the Pacific, attempts by the US government to use facial recognition technology continue to draw scrutiny. Last year, politicians slammed the FBI for collecting photos of regular Americans without their knowledge. And university researchers warned about a biometric screening system being deployed in several American airports, calling it “unjustified” and “legally infirm”.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.