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    Shanghai Bans Mandatory Use of Facial Recognition in Hotels

    Local authorities say forcing guests to use face scanners during check-in will be “strictly forbidden,” as the practice represents a privacy and data security risk.

    Shanghai has announced that local hotels will be banned from forcing guests to use facial recognition scanners during check-in — a move that appears to reflect a wider shift in Chinese government attitudes toward the technology.

    In recent weeks, public security regulators in Shanghai have issued several notices informing hotels that it is now illegal to require guests who have provided valid identity documents to have their faces scanned. One document issued earlier this month said the practice is “strictly forbidden.”

    In China, hotels are required to check every guest’s national ID card or passport and submit this information to the local police. More recently, it also started to become common practice for hotels to insist that guests use a facial recognition scanner, so that hotels and the local police could verify guests’ facial data matched the photo on their IDs.

    But it appears that official attitudes toward facial recognition are shifting to a certain extent, with concerns rising about the risks posed by the technology. In recent notices, Shanghai authorities have pointed to the danger of consumers’ sensitive personal information being leaked. Hospitality industry insiders have also reportedly complained that mandatory face-scanning policies make it harder for them to attract foreign tourists.

    Under Shanghai’s new guidelines, hotels will only scan guests’ faces at check-in if they are unable to produce a valid ID, and only with the guests’ consent. If a guest without ID prefers not to use a facial recognition scanner, they can instead go to a local police station and obtain a temporary permit.

    In fact, the enforcement of mandatory face-scanning at hotels appears to have been on the wane since early 2023. Some hotels in several major cities — including Beijing, Hangzhou, and Guangzhou — stopped forcing guests to use face scanners months ago, according to state media reports.

    Sixth Tone spoke with staff at five hotels in Shanghai about the ban, and all five said that they had already canceled their mandatory facial recognition policies. Two said they had done so at the start of 2024.

    “The change has enhanced our work efficiency,” said an employee, surnamed Wei, at a Shanghai outlet of a major hotel chain. “It also saves guests time during check-in and increases guests’ overall satisfaction.”

    The rule change has been warmly received on Chinese social media. “Biometric information is unique … You can’t change your face if the data gets leaked,” read one highly-upvoted comment on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo.

    Other Weibo users said they hoped similar rules would be adopted in other areas. “I hope that university campuses will scrap facial recognition, setting an example for the whole of society about protecting personal information,” one person wrote.

    Over the past decade, facial recognition technology has become ubiquitous in China, with scanners widely used in public venues such as airports, hotels, and museums, as well as in banks and mobile payment systems.

    The systems are not only used to verify people’s identity, but also to identify people directly by comparing a facial image with a database. Police have used the technology to track down suspects and reunite human trafficking victims with their biological families.

    But the Chinese public has remained wary of the technology, with complaints about the overuse of scanners and misuse of personal data on the rise. Scandals have emerged involving supermarkets and other businesses collecting customers’ facial data without their consent using hidden cameras. These images were then used to develop customized marketing strategies.

    To ease public concerns about the overuse of facial recognition, the Cyber Administration of China issued draft regulations in August last year stating that facial recognition technology should only be used “for specific purposes and if it is sufficiently necessary, and strict protective measures should be implemented.”

    The regulations — which are midway through a public consultation process — will introduce a number of restrictions on how businesses use face scanners. It will become illegal for a wide range of venues to force individuals to use facial recognition scanners — including airports, stadiums, exhibition halls, museums, art galleries, and libraries — unless they are required to by law.

    Separately, China is due to implement new consumer rights protection regulations on July 1 that ban operators from excessively collecting consumers’ personal information, or collecting and using any personal data that is unrelated to their business activities.

    (Header image: VCG)