ChinAI #77: A Strong Argument Against Facial Recognition in the Beijing Subway

Tsinghua Professor of Law, Lao Dongyan, Argues Her Case

Welcome to the ChinAI Newsletter!

I like to think that there are objective criteria for how I choose each the feature translation for each issue of ChinAI. This week’s feature translation certainly meets many of those in spades: it’s well-argued and deeply researched, presents a fresh take on an important topic related to China’s AI scene, and it’s written by a smart Chinese scholar on her personal blog, which means many in the English-language audience may not have otherwise read it.

But sometimes I choose a certain translation to feature partly because those are the stories and narratives about China’s AI development that I especially want to share— one of those being that Chinese people are concerned about AI ethics, which was one of the five takeaways in my Year in Review post. That’s why I was especially drawn to this week’s critique of facial recognition, one that directly calls out the misuse of facial recognition by public authorities (not just commercial organizations). It’s not a piece representative of all discussions of the ethics of facial recognition in China. It doesn’t cover all the implications of facial recognition, such as the disproportionate targeting minorities.

But it does go farther than any other piece by a Chinese scholar I’ve seen in its strong opposition to facial recognition technology, framed in the broader diagnosis of “how the hysterical pursuit of security has brought to society not security at all, but complete suppression and panic.” It wasn’t an objective choice of a feature translation by a neutral observer. It’s a piece that presents a vision of public discourse in China about technology that I want to believe in and that I want for others to know is, at the very least, possible.

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Feature Translation: Tsinghua Professor Lao Dongyan: The hidden worries of facial recognition technology

THE CONTEXT: Last month, after learning that the Beijing Subway will apply facial recognition technology to carry out screening security checks on passengers, Tsinghua Professor Lao Dongyan (劳东燕) posted an article on her public Wechat account expressing her worries about facial recognition technology. She has called for stricter regulations on facial recognition and was one of nearly 300 faculty and students at Tsinghua who signed a letter in support of Tsinghua Professor Xu Zhangrun (suspended for criticisms of the Communist Party).


  • The essay is structured into four arguments against the use of facial recognition in the Beijing Subway as well as rebuttals to four possible counterarguments. The four arguments:

  1. The relevant organizations and institutions have not proven the legitimacy of their collection method for sensitive personal information

  2. The legitimacy of the new facial recognition measure is undercut without a hearing of the public’s views (e.g. the Beijing subway undertook a broad solicitation of the public’s views on a fare adjustment a few years earlier)

  3. The standards for how the Beijing subway will conduct screenings are not transparent, could be arbitrarily set, and could be discriminatory.

  4. There is not enough evidence to show that the use of facial recognition in subways can improve transport efficiency; even if there is evidence to prove this, efficiency itself is not a sufficient basis for implementation.

  • She also rebuts four counterarguments that others have brought up in the context of this case:

  1. Re: the counterargument that “some people may think that I am overthinking it, and I cannot appreciate and thank the government, as a father figure, for its protection and kindness,” Professor Law writes, “I can only say: forgive me, but I cannot accept this type of kindness…We must know that in our society, any personal data, as long as it is controlled by enterprises or other institutions, is also controlled by the government. Because this huge organization is run by specific people, this is equivalent to saying that all personal data, including highly recognizable biometric data, are controlled by a few people in that group…The people who control our data are obviously not God. They have their own selfish desires and weak points. Therefore, it is unknown how they will use our personal data and how they will manipulate our lives. Not to mention, such data may be leaked or hacked due to improper storage, leading to harmful results that may be exploited by criminals.

  2. In response to some people who say that as long as you don't do bad things, you don't have to worry about the government controlling your personal data, Lao writes, “In a normal society, individuals should have the right to oppose any organization's arbitrary access to their personal biometric data. The law’s protection of an individual’s privacy and property rights and freedoms gives individuals a space for self-government, which cannot be infringed upon by others...If the biometric data of an individual can be obtained without consent in the name of security, do the legal protections of privacy and freedom of residence mean anything? Without privacy there is no freedom.

  3. While some people point out that they are not important people which means that others presumably have no interest in learning about our personal information, Lao argues, “I can only say that when you put your personal safety issue on the neglect of others, you basically live like a dead gambler. And, you are not only betting on your luck, but you are also betting that the person who controls the data is an angel. To those who wishfully think they can win this bet, while I admire your ostrich-like character, I secretly think you probably need to pay some intelligence tax.”

  4. Lastly, she calls out people who argue that even if this type of technology promotion has some issues, opposing it does not have any use, and they are too lazy to spend energy opposing it. “For issues that concern our own important rights and interests, I can only say that if we do not stand up and express our opposition and make our due efforts, it is naturally impossible to expect others to help call this out. How do you know that opposition is ineffective before you make the minimum effort? Even if opposition is ultimately invalid, it is better than tamely putting on your own shackles. At least we put in the work and struggled.

    As those who have had their rights violated, if we just endure this in silence and do not even dare to express our opposition, it is tantamount to helping the other party to scheme and hurts yourself…Because this is not a problem that can be solved simply by stubbornly tolerating it. Watching us go step by step towards the abyss, this was at least partly caused by our own stubborn forbearance.”

  • She also shares her own personal experience living in an increasingly securitized China: “You need to show your ID when entering or leaving the university campus, have your ID card checked when you mail something, scan your face to check in at a hotel…Living in this society, I often feel that I am not trusted. Whether it is reimbursement for scientific research expenses, or constantly escalating security, what I can sense is an atmosphere of unlimited alert.”

  • Her conclusion sticks the landing: “If this society has not yet fallen into a state of persecution and paranoia, it is time to say enough on security issues. The hysterical pursuit of security has brought to society not security at all, but complete suppression and panic.

    In the end, I solemnly recommend that the National People's Congress Standing Committee conduct a fundamental legitimacy review for the Beijing Metro’s measure to employ facial recognition for security screening. At the same time, it should consider initiating corresponding legislative procedures for a legal approach to regulating the arbitrary use of facial recognition technology.”

FULL TRANSLATION: Tsinghua Professor Lao Dongyan: The hidden worries of facial recognition technology

ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)

Must Read: Chinese Public AI R&D Spending: CSET’s Provisional Findings by Ashwin Acharya and Zachary Arnold

The authors conclude: “We assess with low to moderate confidence that China’s public investment in AI R&D was on the order of a few billion dollars in 2018. With higher confidence, we assess that China’s government is not investing tens of billions of dollars annually in AI R&D, as some have suggested.”

The footnotes (especially footnote 2) give a nice picture about how the meme of how China is outspending the U.S. on AI has been propagated. The author’s find that “China’s government probably isn’t dramatically outspending the U.S. government on AI R&D.”

Additional findings include: Chinese public AI R&D spending probably tilts heavily toward applied research and experimental development, not basic research. This is consistent with China’s overall public R&D spending; China’s government may be investing a few billion dollars a year (at most) in private-sector AI activity through guidance funds— essentially, state-backed venture capital funds. However, guidance fund spending is not properly considered R&D spending and is likely overstated.

Should Read: The Chinese Approach to Artificial Intelligence: An Analysis of Policy and Regulation

A new paper on the Chinese approach to AI from our neighbors at the Oxford Internet Institute: In July 2017, China’s State Council released the country’s strategy for developing artificial intelligence (AI), entitled ‘New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan’ (新一代人工智能发展规划). This strategy outlined China’s aims to become the world leader in AI by 2030, to monetise AI into a trillion-yuan ($150 billion) industry, and to emerge as the driving force in defining ethical norms and standards for AI. Several reports have analysed specific aspects of China’s AI policies or have assessed the country’s technical capabilities. Instead, in this article, we focus on the socio-political background and policy debates that are shaping China’s AI strategy. In particular, we analyse the main strategic areas in which China is investing in AI and the concurrent ethical debates that are delimiting its use. Through focusing on the policy backdrop, we seek to provide a more comprehensive understanding of China’s AI policy by bringing together debates and analyses of a wide array of policy documents.

Pages 15-17 on medical ethics were especially informative for me.

Should Read: Second Report of the Axon AI & Policing Technology Ethics Board: Automated License Plate Readers

In October 2019, Axon’s AI and Policing Technology Ethics Board, an independent advisory board created in 2018 to advise Axon (formerly Taser) on ethical issues related to artificial intelligence (AI)-powered policing technologies, released a report in response to Axon’s announcement of its intention to begin producing automated license plate readers (ALPRs), computer-controlled camera systems that read and record license plates. As the report explains, ALPRs are already one of the most widely used surveillance systems in existence, but they are severely under-regulated. A combination of rapid growth and lack of regulation has created an industry with little public accountability and has led to a variety of concerning practices, including the creation of massive databases with information on millions of innocent individuals. The Board’s report calls for comprehensive regulation of ALPR technology, and offers vendors (including Axon) a number of recommendations to make ALPR design more transparent and ethical.

Should Read: Can America and China be Stakeholders?

A wider-lens perspective from Robert Zoellick at the US-China Business Council’s Gala 2019 on the need to urge China to assume responsibilities as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.

Thank you for reading and engaging.

These are Jeff Ding's (sometimes) weekly translations of Chinese-language musings on AI and related topics. Jeff is a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, PhD candidate in International Relations, Researcher at GovAI/Future of Humanity Institute, and Research Fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

Check out the archive of all past issues here & please subscribe here to support ChinAI under a Guardian/Wikipedia-style tipping model (everyone gets the same content but those who can pay for a subscription will support access for all).

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