CCTV accused the Chinese unit of American manufacturer Kohler, for example, of installing cameras in hundreds of its stores in China and capturing the faces of customers to analyze their gender and age, among other details.
CCTV posts about the claims have generated tens of thousands of comments on the social media platform Weibo, where people worried about whether their personal information was being abused.
A ‘far cry’ from Beijing’s surveillance network
The “315” show has broadcast in China for decades, often focusing on hot-button consumer rights issues of the moment.
This year’s focus on privacy and surveillance highlights rising worries in China about the use of such technology in the digital age, according to Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies Chinese politics and societal issues.
It’s not just Weibo users who have gotten wrapped up in the fallout, either.
“The ‘315’ program is a reminder of how easily people’s facial IDs can be obtained” and “how rampant the use of the technology is,” wrote the editorial board of the Guangming Daily, a major state-owned national newspaper, on Wednesday. “Our regulation is lacking behind in the facial recognition industry.”
But state-driven concerns about privacy and surveillance might ring a bit hollow to some.
“Impinging on people’s privacy isn’t a good look for Kohler and BMW, but it’s a far cry [from] China’s massive [closed-circuit television] surveillance network,” said Paul Bischoff, a consumer privacy expert and the editor of Comparitech, a UK-based technology research firm.
Lam said that Beijing may think that stopping companies — and especially foreign ones — from obtaining large amounts of biometric information is a responsible decision.
But the government still has a much farther reach than businesses to when it comes to surveillance. And Lam added that since discussions about such projects are restricted in mainland China, the public may not be aware of how far Beijing’s reach extends.
“Yes, some tech companies do collect and store people’s photos to use in face recognition applications. And I support regulations restricting such data collection without consent,” said Bischoff. “US and European laws still lag behind in that regard. But unlike China, these applications are not being used to restrict freedom of movement or assembly.”
Lam also suggested that the program — along with the fallout that has stemmed from it — points to another longstanding government priority: making sure that businesses know they aren’t above the government.
“It’s a reminder that companies need to listen and play by the rules,” he added.