No more facial scans needed at check-in, China tells hotels

Guests can now present a smart ID card. Residents say people are constantly scanned in public anyway.
By Qian Lang for RFA Mandarin
2024.04.25
No more facial scans needed at check-in, China tells hotels China’s state broadcaster China Central Television reports on the abolition of compulsory facial recognition scans for guests checking into hotels and guesthouses, April 25, 2024.
RFA screenshot.

Authorities across China are telling hotels and guesthouses to stop subjecting guests – domestic and foreign – to facial recognition scans at check-in, state media reported on Thursday.

"Recently, some travelers have reported that when they checked into a hotel in Shanghai, they were told that they no longer needed to undergo a facial scan," state broadcaster CCTV reported, citing an April 12 notice posted to a police computer network linking all hotels in the city.

"Forcing guests to undergo facial scans is strictly prohibited if they have presented a valid ID," the report quoted the notice as saying.

Last year, Chinese authorities in the eastern city of Hangzhou installed facial recognition cameras in the spyholes of hotels as part of a slew of tight security measures ahead of the 19th Asian Games in September.

Now, the authorities seem to be rolling back such measures, although it's unclear why.

Similar announcements are being rolled out to hotels in cities across China, including Guangzhou, Yichang and Zhuhai, the report said. 

It quoted an expert as saying that the use of facial recognition can alienate people from traveling in China and inflate costs for businesses. There is also a risk that the data could be misused, it quoted Guo Bing of the Zhejiang University of Science and Technology as saying.

Not everyone appears to have gotten the memo, however.

A Shanghai resident who gave only the surname Chen for fear of reprisals said she was still asked for a facial scan by a hotel desk clerk when she stayed briefly in a local hotel while her home was being remodeled.

"The maintenance team is repairing my home, which was leaking after recent rain," Chen said. "I stayed at the All Seasons Hotel, where they were still doing facial recognition scans."

An employee who answered the phone on Thursday at the Shanghai All Seasons Hotel (Tongji University) where Chen stayed said facial scans are no longer compulsory, however.

"It's based on personal preference -- it's OK not to do a facial scan," the employee said. "It's not mandatory."

How about in Xinjiang?

A member of staff who answered the phone at the Deyuan Business Hotel in Urumqi, capital of the tightly controlled Xinjiang region, said facial scans are no longer required there, but the hotel does take photos of guests when they check in.

"You can check in using your ID card," the staff member said. "We will take a photo of you, but there's no need to do a facial scan."

Some media reports lauded the move as "a return to the rule of law," quoting the official rulebook titled "Public Security Management Measures for the Hotel Industry" as saying that while ID cards are required for registration, facial recognition isn't mentioned specifically.

Prior to the new ruling, the impetus to force everyone checking in to have a facial scan came from local police stations, according to one report.

Not everyone was convinced that the move was an improvement, however.

A resident of the eastern city of Nanjing who gave only the surname Wu for fear of reprisals said he suspects the walking back of facial recognition is because ruling Chinese Communist Party officials themselves don't want their every move to be recorded by police.

"It seems a bit out of character for them, and it's probably because they're afraid for their own privacy when traveling," Wu said. "It's not about protecting the privacy of citizens."

Could it be an IT issue?

An IT professional who gave only the surname Xu for fear of reprisals said the move could have something to do with the fact that there are approximately 610,000 hotels and guesthouses in China, each with their own scanner, as well as hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras with facial and full body recognition capabilities.

"If the database hasn't been properly designed, and lacks storage capacity and processing power to cope with the demands of such massive amounts of data, it will overload," Xu said.

"Insufficient hardware resources like memory and disks can also cause bottlenecks, resulting in slow system response or even crashes," he said.

"If there is insufficient bandwidth, data transmission may be delayed or lost, and if the software architecture and code can't be tweaked to improve efficiency, it could get overloaded, and paralysis may occur," Xu said.

He said China currently uses distributed databases, cloud computing services and automatic expansion technology, but its nationwide monitoring and surveillance systems still need huge amounts of professional maintenance just to keep up and running.

Media reports and security consultancies have estimated that China is home to hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras.

During the three-year zero-COVID policy, the authorities used a hugely unpopular COVID-19 app to track people's movements, along with the immune status of COVID-19 cases and their contacts. The restrictions were eventually lifted following mass protests in November 2022.

Facial recognition is already widely in place across the country, and Chen said she doesn't see how rolling back the use of scans in hotels will change the ongoing mass surveillance of China's 1.4 billion population.

"As soon as you go out, your face gets scanned," Chen said. "There are hundreds of cameras pointing at you from all directions, and your image gets immediately uploaded to a big database for verification."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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