Viral video of man evading facial recognition leads to surveillance bans in Chinese cities

Society & Culture

Real estate companies in China are using facial recognition to track customers and improve their sales and marketing results. But a viral video has made some city governments crack down on private sector use of the technology.

helmet man

A viral video of a Chinese man wearing a helmet to outsmart facial recognition surveillance cameras has inspired a national conversation and prompted several Chinese cities to regulate surveillance in the private sectors.

In the eight-second clip (in Chinese), which was shared last month by a real estate agent in the eastern city of Jinan, Shandong Province, a customer at a real estate exhibition can be seen wearing a motorcycle helmet in order to avoid being identified by a network of facial recognition cameras.

As the video racked up hundreds of thousands of views on Chinese social media, commenters noted a concerning trend of real estate agencies and developers installing facial recognition systems, with the aim of categorizing customers and determining commissions for brokers.

According to the Southern Metropolis Daily (in Chinese), an increasing number of Chinese developers are using facial recognition to assess the effectiveness of their advertising campaigns. By distinguishing clients attracted by advertisements from those introduced through third-party agencies or sales associates, the companies can pay commission fees more fairly and prevent buyers from abusing discounts attached to certain marketing campaigns.

In China, facial recognition is ubiquitous and used almost everywhere for the mass surveillance of ordinary people in public life — most alarmingly to track and control the Uyghurs, a largely Muslim minority, in what appears to be a government-led campaign of ethnic profiling. In recent years, the controversial technology has also seen a growing implementation in the private sector, which has led to rising privacy concerns among average people and legal experts.

The viral video of the helmeted man and the media revelations about real estate companies gave many social media users a chilling picture of a future dominated by facial recognition. “I feel like biometric surveillance creep is going on in almost every aspect of our lives these days. But I never give my consent,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese). Others urged the government to take action to “rein in the industry.” A Weibo user commented (in Chinese), “If my biometrics get stolen, hackers can do things with them. Some order needs to be brought to this dangerous area.”

In response to the calls, a number of Chinese cities have implemented regional regulations to restrict the use of facial recognition by private business owners. On December 1, Tianjin passed local legislation that made it illegal for companies to collect people’s biometric data without consent. In direct response to the increased use of facial recognition in the real estate industry, cities like Nanjing and Xuzhou have banned local developers and housing agencies from using the technology.

Before the viral video, some local governments had already begun to address the mounting ethical concerns that come with the rapid expansion of facial recognition technology. For example, in October, Hangzhou became the first Chinese city to prohibit the compulsory use of the technology in residential communities and buildings.

Despite regional efforts in China, there are currently no nationwide laws regulating the use of biometric data. But in one of the first significant legal challenges to the prevalence of facial recognition technology in the country, a law professor filed a lawsuit against a wildlife park for enforcing the technology. Last month, a local court in Zhejiang ruled in favor of the professor, saying that “it was illegal and unnecessary” for the park to collect visitors’ facial data, according to Sixth Tone.