China has made it a legal requirement for people signing up to new mobile phone and data plans to have their faces scanned, in a major growth of the surveillance state.
The new rules, outlined by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), came into effect on Sunday.
They require new phone plan users to submit face scans alongside their national identification card information, ensuring their devices are linked to their real identities.
The MIIT said the move was made "to safeguard the legitimate rights and interest of citizens in cyberspace", and would help protect phone users from fraud.
With Chinese authorities cracking down hard on online dissent and arresting government critics, there are concerns that the regulations mark the next step in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s construction of the world’s most draconian surveillance regime.
Debate about the government’s intent with regard to the new requirement was sparked on Chinese social media sites, such as Weibo.
One commenter pointed out that real-name registration of phone plans with ID cards had been a requirement in China for years already. “Scam and sales phone calls still have not been stopped!” they wrote in a post translated by Quartz. “Gathering citizen’s information excessively like this is a violation of people’s civic rights.”
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) heavily censors the internet in China, which has over 850 million mobile internet users. Many news and social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are blocked by what has come to be known as ‘The Great Firewall’.
Chinese authorities have invested heavily in face recognition technology recently, as part of measures to keep close tabs on the population.
There are reportedly 200 million surveillance cameras operating in the country. The government is also developing a social credit system that will rate citizens on factors including loyalty to the CCP. The system, scheduled to be fully implemented by 2020, results in punishments such as transport restrictions for citizens with low scores.