Picture a world in which the baseline requirement for a new smartphone is a facial recognition test. You needn’t imagine it — in China, beginning December 1, that’s the scrutiny to which the country’s over 850 million internet users will be subject, without exception. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said in a late September statement that the rule, which will also prevent people from exchanging their mobile numbers, was necessitated by an uptick in phone and internet fraud. Furthermore, the ministry pledged that it would help to “increase supervision and inspection” and “strengthen assessment accountability” while “supervis[ing] the implementation of work” and the “real-name registration management of telephone users.”
Tying ID verification to phone purchases isn’t exactly unprecedented. A rule imposed by the German interior ministry in 2016 requires that domestic telecoms ask customers for ID cards, foreign passports, or temporary ID papers when they buy a SIM card or a cell phone.
Under French law, carriers must collect identifying information of all users and subscribers of prepaid services. And in the U.S. in 2010, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced a bill that would have mandated ID verification for every prepaid phone purchase, ostensibly to deter terror suspects.
But China’s new regulation — a harsher imposition than the registration system that launched in 2013, which requires customers obtaining a new phone number to volunteer their IDs — is among the first with a facial recognition component. Despite a outcry on Chinese social media, it seems unlikely that critics will prove successful in pushing against it, for the reason that sales provide valuable data to cross-reference with internet activity. (See: China’s sprawling social credit system.) Shipments hit 97.6 million in the second quarter of 2019 alone.