China has made notable steps towards regulating biometric data. The Personal Information Protection Law, into force since November 2021, has introduced restrictions on the collection of sensitive personal information such as biometric features, including consent, specificity of purpose and proportionality requirements. Some local governments have moved to regulate the deployment of facial recognition in public spaces, while the Cyberspace Administration of China unveiled draft rules in January to restrict the use of deepfakes.
While Chinese citizens are being granted greater protections, legislation and regulation are carefully crafted to give public security organs broad powers to harvest and use biometric data in conjunction with the performance of their law enforcement and national security duties. Such a security-centric approach has paved the way to the creation of the world’s largest police-run DNA database. In the name of stability maintenance, the voice, facial, fingerprint, gait, iris, and DNA information of millions of people is being collected without their informed consent, particularly in minority regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet. Such a mass data collection has gone hand in hand with the emergence of a booming surveillance tech industry.
To shed light on the different motives behind biometric surveillance in China, how it is viewed by the public, and what limits (if any) the police have placed on their authority, three police-led biometric surveillance programs will be presented as case studies. These focus, respectively on women and children at risk of human trafficking, target populations and criminalized people, and ethnic minority communities in Western China.
Understanding China’s handling and regulation of biometric data is relevant to European actors. What are the risks of cooperating with Chinese researchers, law enforcement and tech firms on biometrics research, data handling and technology development? How to make sure that European technology, research, and public money do not end up contributing to invasive surveillance programs tied to human rights abuses?
Emile Dirks, MERICS Futures Fellow, University of Toronto (PhD Candidate) and Citizen Lab (Postdoctoral Fellow)
Rebecca Arcesati, Analyst, MERICS
Katja Drinhausen, Head of Domestic Politics & Society Program, MERICS
This event was for MERICS Members and key stakeholders.