Law Professor Sues Chinese Zoo for Mandatory Face-Scanning

November 5, 2019 Updated: November 5, 2019

A professor is challenging a wildlife park in China over its use of facial recognition, making him the first person to take such an issue to court in a country where surveillance has become commonplace.

Guo Bing, an associate professor in legal studies at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University, filed the lawsuit against Hangzhou Safari Park on Oct. 28, after the park made it mandatory for its annual pass holders to register their faces in order to enter the park, according to the lawsuit.

Guo purchased the annual membership in April at a cost of 1,360 yuan (around $194). With the pass, Guo could enjoy 12 months of unlimited visits to the park with another adult and a child by showing his card and fingerprint at the entrance. The regular adult ticket costs 220 yuan (around $31.40).

On Oct. 17, Guo received a text from Hangzhou Safari Park, saying that they had upgraded their admission system by replacing the existing fingerprint system with facial recognition, and that those who refuse to register their faces could no longer enter the park.

“The moment I saw the text, my professional instinct told me that what the Hangzhou Safari Park was doing had violated the law,” Guo told Qianjiang Evening News on Nov. 3, a local newspaper.

A screen shows visitors being filmed by AI security cameras with facial recognition technology at the 14th China International Exhibition on Public Safety and Security at the China International Exhibition Center in Beijing on Oct. 24, 2018. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)
A screen shows visitors being filmed by AI security cameras with facial recognition technology at the 14th China International Exhibition on Public Safety and Security at the China International Exhibition Center in Beijing on Oct. 24, 2018. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

He asked for a refund, but the park said it could only return the remaining amount after taking out the entrance fees from his previous visits at regular prices.

“I have visited the park around five times since getting the annual pass. If you deduct the adult entrance fees and give me a refund for the remaining amount, then aren’t I being ripped off?” Guo said.

He then filed a civil lawsuit accusing the park of violating his consumer rights and demanding compensation to his card. Article 29 of Chinese consumer protection law states that businesses must obtain consumer consent before collecting consumers’ personal information and without breaching the agreement between the two parties.

“For a zoo to collect people’s facial data, I have questions regarding its safety and privacy issues. Who will bear the responsibility if the information gets leaked?” he told Qianjiang Evening News.

The Fuyang People’s Court in Hangzhou, the capital of coastal Zhejiang Province, accepted the case on Nov. 1.

Guo said that on the following day, the park called him with an offer to register for an annual pass with just his personal ID. But he declined.

“It was only a verbal promise, what if they do it a few times and denied me entry thereafter?” Guo said. “When everyone enters by scanning their faces and I’m the only exception … I also won’t feel comfortable.”

Visitors are filmed by artificial intelligence security cameras using facial recognition technology at an international security expo in China.
Visitors are filmed by artificial intelligence security cameras using facial recognition technology at an international security expo at the China International Exhibition Center in Beijing on Oct. 24, 2018. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

The park claimed that the new entry system was a measure to integrate with the City Brain project in Hangzhou, powered by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba in 2016.

The project, primarily based on big data, has since installed a network of surveillance cameras in the city to monitor every vehicle passing through the streets. The cloud computing system would then analyze the footage in real time.

Although the system’s expressed purpose is to reduce traffic, application of similar technologies has drawn widespread criticism in Xinjiang, where Muslim minorities are subject to constant surveillance and religious suppression. Authorities in the region also adopted an emotion recognition system to detect signs of anxiety and aggression.

According to Alibaba’s website, the City Brain video search engine could locate specific objects and identify a pedestrian with a 96 percent accuracy.

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A live demonstration uses artificial intelligence and facial recognition in dense crowd spatial-temporal technology at the Horizon Robotics exhibit at the Las Vegas Convention Center during CES 2019 in Las Vegas on Jan. 10, 2019. (David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)

Some critics applauded Guo for taking the risk of challenging the facial recognition technology.

“There are few such public interest litigations because most people forfeit this right,” Yang Zhanqing, a New York-based human rights activist, told The Epoch Times’s sister media NTD. “The cost of defending your rights is very high in China.”

Zhang Xiaogang, a member of the Canadian political group Federation for a Democratic China, expressed concerns about the way the facial recognition technology is developing in China.

“Looking at the overall trend, the Chinese Communist Party could only step up their push for facial recognition,” he told NTD. “A common theme for an authoritarian regime is that it controls everything … they use these advancing technologies to strengthen their control.”

Follow Eva on Twitter: @EvaSailEast
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