China’s parliament has said it will legislate on privacy protection, while the state has vastly increased surveillance since the outbreak of COVID-19.
The National People’s Congress, China’s highest legislature, is back in session after being delayed by two months by COVID-19. In his work report, the Chairman of the People’s Congress’s Standing Committee singled out three pieces of legislation related to state security and society control as priority tasks in the immediate future. Privacy protection is one of them, the other two being laws on data security and biosecurity, according to the reporting by People’s Daily, one of China’s main propaganda outlets.
This does not come as a complete surprise. At the end of last year, the People’s Congress announced at a press conference that a comprehensive privacy law would go through the legislation process in 2020. So far China’s privacy protection legislation is dispersed in different criminal, civil, and commercial laws and it often replies on the interpretation of judges when it comes to specific litigations. This gives those organisations, businesses, and individuals that have almost unbridled access to personal and private data an almost free hand to determine how to use the data. A group of consumers in China actually lost their case against Amazon when their privacy data on the e-commerce giant’s China site was comprised, which led to their losing large amount of money to phishing schemes.
Tencent and Alibaba have deployed facial recognition solutions at retail outlets where users of their online payment systems can pay for their purchases by looking at the camera at the check-out point. It is true that such solutions are both convenient and adding fun to the shopping experience, and it may also be true that the attitudes towards privacy in China are different from that in Europe. “In China, and across Asia, data is not seen as something to be locked down, it’s something that can be used,” according to a Hong Kong-based lawyer.
More recently, while the country was combating COVID-19, various tracing applications have been developed and deployed using personal data including name, date of birth, physical address, ID number, geo location records, and the like. Some of these apps have been jointly developed by commercial entities and public authorities and law enforcement agencies. Some people have raised concern that when the emergency is over, who and for how long such sensitive data should still be kept.
Probably more important is the scope of application of the impending law. The discussion on China’s official media is all about how to protect private data from being misused or abused by businesses, in particular the internet companies that have both access to the data and the technologies to benefit from it. It cannot help but giving the impression that the law is designed to primarily keep big businesses in check, without tying the government’s hands.
While the state legislature announced the new law being codified, China has vastly increased surveillance over its people, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reuters reported that the country has seen “hundreds of millions of cameras in public places” being set up in cities and villages, as well as “increasing use of techniques such as smartphone monitoring and facial recognition.” The authorities have successfully located people infected by COVID-19 with surveillance images and facial recognition technologies, state media reported.
However, despite all the talking about AI, big data, and facial recognition, surveillance in China is still largely done by human beings constantly watching surveillance camera footages on screen and smartphone, which doesn’t come cheap. 4,400 cameras were installed in a village in Hubei, the province where COVID-19 first started, costing $5.6 million, according to the Reuters report.
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