China Safari Park Facial Recognition Row Could Open Much Needed Debate

Law Professor Guo Bing is suing Hangzhou Safari Park for forcing annual ticket holders to be subject to facial recognition at the entrance.

04.11.2019 | by Kezia Parkins
Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash
Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

Throughout 2019, China has continued to secure itself as a world leader in today’s most controversial type of tech — facial recognition.

The country seems to be applying the technology to all areas of human life, although many believe that in some of these areas, facial recognition has no business being there.

Facial recognition has been found in schools across China, in toilets to stop toilet paper thieves, and on streets to penalise people for jaywalking.

While the country is now aiming to curb the technology in schools due to many parents concerns of their kids’ privacy, China continues to come up with new reasons to capture its citizens’ features.

Xinhua News Agency has earlier reported that since the launch of the central government’s “smart tourism” initiative in 2015, more than 270 tourist attractions around the country have introduced facial recognition systems.

Hope for natives might come in the form of Guo Bing, an associate law professor at Zhejiang Sci-tech University who is taking a wildlife park to court for breach of contract after it replaced its fingerprint-based entry system with one that uses facial recognition.

Guo bought an annual pass to Hangzhou Safari Park for 1,360 yuan (US$190) in April, Southern Metropolis Daily recently reported.

When he was informed last month that the park was switching to facial recognition entry, Guo became concerned over identity theft and requested a refund.

The park refused to give him his money back so he filed a civil lawsuit last week at a district court in Fuying, Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province.

The report, which was also covered by South China Morning Post, confirmed that the court had accepted Bing’s case in which he is demanding 1,360 yuan in compensation — the cost of the annual ticket.

Guo is disputing why an amusement park would need to collect such data and who would be responsible if there were any leaks.

“The purpose of the lawsuit is not to get compensation but to fight the abuse of facial recognition,” the report quoted him saying.

Bing said that when he bought the ticket – which offers 12 months’ unlimited park visits for himself and a family member – he was required to provide his name, phone number and fingerprints.

To this, he obliged and said he had visited the park on several occasions since.

But, when the park upgraded its admission system, all annual ticket holders were asked to update their accounts — including having a photograph taken — before October 17 to avoid being denied entry.

An unnamed manager of the park stated in the report that the move to facial recognition was to improve efficiency at the entrance gates.

Guo, however, believes that this change was an infringement of his consumer rights.

Zhao Zhanling, a lawyer at the Beijing Zhilin Law Firm, was inclined to agree, saying that it was possible that the park had breached the conditions of the original contract.

“The plaintiff’s concern is totally understandable,” he said.

Several Chinese news outlets have stated that Guo Bing’s case is the first of its kind meaning it could open up a wider debate around the use of facial recognition in the country.

The Guardian reported that Guo has previously backed the use of such technology by authorities but has also stated that the issue was in need of wider discussion in China.

“I think it is OK and, to some extent, necessary for government agencies, especially police departments, to implement this technology, because it helps to maintain public security,” Guo said, according to an interview with Beijing News.

“But it’s still worth discussing when it comes to the legitimacy and legality of using the technology.”

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