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China deemed worst in use of biometric data by UK firm

China tops in surveillance across the world (Photo: IANS)

Once again China has been ranked worst globally for "widespread and invasive biometric data collection" in a study conducted across 96 countries. UK-based Comparitech released its study in late January to see how countries collect biometric data.

The study finds that China is using facial recognition and fingerprints for a broad variety of activities including shaming jaywalkers and preventing toilet paper theft in public restrooms. The study added that China lacked privacy safeguards for employees in the workplace, introducing a system of fingerprinting anyone who entered the country.

Earlier, in 2019 too Comparitech had found that China was the worst in collection, use and storage of biometric data due to its "widespread and invasive use of facial recognition technology in CCTV cameras.”

The communist country has also made Artificial Intelligence (AI) one of the core components of its national plans, where it seeks to surpass the US or at least achieve parity with it. In 2017, China had issued the 'Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan,' calling for the country to become the world leader in AI innovation by 2030.

Countries that follow China in worst practices include Costa Rica, Iran and the US in that order. Among those following the best practices, Ethiopia, Portugal and Ireland were ranked in the top five because of both – data protection regulations or the fact that they were not collecting data proactively.

The spread of the coronavirus provided an opportunity to the Chinese government to mount increased surveillance of people and use of biometrics when it began deploying "drones with facial recognition to monitor people outside their homes during lockdowns." The Comparitech report added that China had installed cameras at the front of buses to take the temperature of people along with a photo of their forehead. The government was working to develop facial recognition technology to identify individuals wearing protective masks.

The study came two months after a Chinese law professor won China's first lawsuit against the use of his biometric information. Guo Bing, associate law professor at Zhejiang Sci-tech University, sued Hangzhou Safari Park in 2019 for breach of contract after it replaced a fingerprint-based entry system with one that uses facial recognition. In a rare case, the Hangzhou Fuyang People's Court ordered the safari park to delete Guo's facial recognition data and compensate him with US$160 (1,038 yuan).

Guo's example shows that even people in China are not comfortable with heightened surveillance. There have been numerous data leaks and often the public found their faces, national ID numbers and phone numbers on sale at ridiculously low prices. Under China's extensive biometric system, fingerprints are scanned to pay bills, enter buildings even as companies are even trying to monitor their staff's vital signs through smart cushions and others attempt to scan brain waves for productivity at work.

China remains one of the most heavily monitored countries through CCTVs. With increased surveillance and leakage of personal data, the government too has begun to take note and made a draft law that restrains companies over the use of biometrics.