China society
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Both fingerprint and facial recognition technology are used in this device to check the identification of a student in China. Photo: AFP

China ‘world’s worst’ for invasive use of biometric data

  • Study ranks 50 countries on how extensively they use facial recognition and other biological tools as well as privacy protections for individuals
  • China scores maximum points on every measure except one

China has been ranked the world’s No 1 for its extensive and invasive use of biometric data, while the US came in at No 4, according to a study of 50 countries by pro-consumer technology website Comparitech.

Malaysia and Pakistan came in second and third, while Ireland and Portugal were rated the best at protecting biometric data, which includes fingerprinting, facial recognition, DNA, iris recognition, palm prints and other methods of identification or access control.

In its report released on Wednesday, Comparitech analysed how biometric data was being collected, used and stored using a 25-point system to measure its prevalence in areas such as passports, banks, identity cards, and voting systems, as well as whether laws were in place to protect the information.

The higher the score, the more extensive and invasive a country’s use of biometric data, Comparitech said. China scored the highest with 24 points, losing just one for its lack of a biometric voting system.

China launches facial recognition for mobile phone users

Malaysia and Pakistan each scored 21, while the United States came in at 20 points. In contrast, Ireland and Portugal had the lowest scores of 11 points, followed by Cyprus, Britain and Romania, which each scored 12.

China scored maximum points across all categories, except for its voting system – although the report noted that voting in China was already heavily controlled, perhaps negating the need for biometric voting. The report highlighted China’s extensive nationwide biometric database, which Comparitech said was being expanded to include DNA.

The study also noted the lack of a specific law in China to protect citizens’ biometrics.

A previous report by Comparitech described China as the most monitored country in the world, on track to have one camera for every two people by 2020.

Rebecca Moody, a writer with Comparitech, said China’s score was definitely a concern. “[In China] biometrics are being collected in a variety of different ways, and without much data protection. These can be used to track, monitor and punish citizens,” she said.

The use of biometric data has grown exponentially in China, in key areas affecting people’s daily lives. Fingerprints or faces are scanned to pay bills, apply for social security and even for loans. There is also little protection against abusive use of data or privacy leaks.

China’s subways embrace face-scan payments despite privacy concerns

Industry observers have previously said a new law was being drafted to safeguard data privacy, but it is unclear when such a law would be completed or enacted.

During the annual meeting of China’s legislators and political advisory bodies – known as the “ two sessions” – in March, Yi Tong, a lawmaker from Beijing, filed a proposal concerning biometrics legislation.

“Once private biometric data is leaked, it is a lifetime leak and it will put the users’ private data security into greater uncertainty, which might lead to a series of risks.”

Yi suggested clarifying the boundary between state power and private rights, and strengthening the management of companies, according to media reports at the time.

China’s facial recognition spread prompts residents to voice concerns

Zeng Liaoyuan, associate professor at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, said there was an urgent need for such laws.

Legislators needed to refer to past laws protecting private property to determine what measures were needed to protect the biometrics of individuals, he said.

Different scenarios should be explored to discuss what boundaries were appropriate in the collection and use of data and whether permission was needed from the individual in different cases, he said.

Some members of the public are also raising their concerns. In November, Guo Bing, an associate law professor at Zhejiang Sci-tech University, sued the Hangzhou Safari Park after it replaced its fingerprint-based entry system with one that uses facial recognition, citing concerns it might be used to “steal” his identity.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China rated worst in world for invasive use of data