Telecoms service providers in mainland China have confirmed to RFA that mandatory facial scans are now being implemented for any new customers, or people applying for a new phone number, after a new set of regulations came into effect at the beginning of this month.
An employee who answered the phone at Beijing Telecom confirmed the new regulations are now standard operating procedure.
"What you need to do for a new phone number is to get a facial scan, like a facial recognition video," the employee said when contacted by RFA on Thursday.
"Existing account holders are already registered under a real-name registration system, and we are sending them reminders to upgrade their registration, and we hope they will comply."
"Any accounts who didn't upgrade to real-name registration in the past are no longer able to access mobile or VOIP calls," the employee said.
An employee who answered the phone at the Shanghai Telecom customer service helpline made the same response, adding that the new requirements apply both to directly managed accounts and any SIM cards purchased privately online.
"They will deliver the card, and you need to sign; they will deliver it to your door, but then you will also need to do a facial recognition scan," the Shanghai Telecom employee said.
Vendors across the border in Hong Kong said mobile customers in the city aren't yet affected by the new regulations in the mainland.
A vendor in Sham Shui Po district said mainland Chinese residents still come to Hong Kong to buy stored-value cards which enable only internet-based (VOIP) phone calls, because they have the advantage of getting the user around the complex network of blocks, filters and human censorship known as the Great Firewall.
Hong Kong SIM cards
Staff at the China Unicom store in the same district said the new policy hadn't yet been applied to residents of Hong Kong, who are increasingly worried about the loss of their existing freedoms, including freedom from government surveillance.
He said mainland residents are still able to buy SIM cards in Hong Kong using their passport and a 1,000 yuan deposit.
"Many, many of us [mainlanders] pay 1,000 yuan deposits because they know what you can see online from Hong Kong is different from what they see online back home," he said.
Mainland residents are able to buy SIM cards in Hong Kong carrying two numbers, one domestic number for use in mainland China, and an uncensored number for getting around the Great Firewall, according to a member of staff at China Mobile in Sham Shui Po.
"Usually it's used by people who travel between China and Hong Kong," the staff member said. "We need to take a photo for our records ... but it's not for facial recognition purposes."
Facial recognition systems are increasingly being used by Chinese police to keep track of the population on the streets, on public transportation networks and on huge databases of people linked to criminal activity or regarded as potential political troublemakers by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Democratic Taiwan recently warned its citizens that accepting a mainland Chinese ID card will mean that they join the ranks of around one billion facial recognition records already held by the authorities there, which are linked to nationwide surveillance cameras that are able to track an individual across the country using a tracking facility called Skynet.
Zhao Qian, a resident of the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, said the government is already using facial recognition as part of the nationwide "stability maintenance" network that tracks political dissidents, rights activists, rights lawyers and petitioners, and anyone else the government thinks could cause it trouble.
"It's really scary how closely they monitor [us] here in China," Zhao said. "Mostly, facial recognition is used for stability maintenance."
"The government takes all of your data and loads it into a high-definition [network] of security cameras, and then a warning pops up whenever you show up in any location," she said. "They can track all of your movements."
"I think this makes people pretty powerless."
Expansive facial recognition
Yin Jun, director of research for surveillance tech company Dahua Advanced Technology, confirmed Zhao's claim.
"We can track any face that appears on a national ID card and plot all of their movements in the last week," Yin said. "We can also match people with their cars."
"Facial recognition also includes recognition of a person's relatives and anyone who they regularly come into contact with," he said. "So that, if the surveillance cameras or sensors are configured to a certain depth, we can often know who you have been with, too."
While Skynet is generally deployed in cities using video capture, transmission, display and control software to search images, a more ambitious project -- codenamed Sharp Eyes -- is being built in rural areas.
China's State Development and Reform Commission ruled in 2015 that the country must achieve 100 percent video surveillance cover in all public areas and key industries by next year.
The plan requires there to be no blind spots in coverage of busy and densely populated areas, nor in any area "relating to foreigners."
Beijing-based legal scholar Wang Peng said that many in China welcome the increased surveillance, however.
"Public opinion has never really questioned the government or the public security ministry on this, but facial recognition probably violates the privacy of citizens," Wang said, adding that some companies are producing cameras with a resolution of tens of millions of pixels.
"And the use of this technology by the police is far more harmful than its use by any individual," he said.
State-run broadcaster China Central Television has reported that there are at least two million camera lenses with detection and recognition capabilities for people in place already.
Mainlanders 'used to being controlled'
Blogger and activist Zhou Shuguang said ID card photos, personal details and phone numbers already pop up in government monitoring stations whenever a person makes a phone call.
"But ID card photos may only be useful for five years for young people and 10 years for adults," he said. "Facial recognition means they aren't limited to a little photo measuring an inch across."
Rights activist Ye Du said that facial recognition is already widely used, including on metro and high-speed rail networks, and to personalize shopping experiences, and there is scant public awareness of the dangers it could pose.
"I don't think they believe it's a really big deal," Ye said. "People in mainland China are generally silent on the topic of the government violating people's right to privacy."
"They don’t know that they are totally monitored under this system ... they are used to being controlled by a totalitarian one-party regime," he said.
He said the ubiquitous mobile payments system also requires registration with facial recognition.
"I think in future this won't just be for new accounts -- this is going to be used [on] everyone," he said.
Ye said there are already signs that Hong Kong will sooner or later be included in the Chinese national surveillance system.
"The smart lampposts [installed in some districts] by the Hong Kong government obviously includes face recognition monitoring capabilities," Ye said.
"Because Hong Kong has comprehensive privacy protection laws, we will not see obvious privacy violations being deployed in Hong Kong, but the party is doing everything it can to incorporate Hong Kong into the data collection system."
The former Portuguese colonial city of Macau will implement a new National Security Law on Dec. 22, which will make real-name registration of mobile account holders mandatory.
Meanwhile, personal data -- including facial photos -- identifying residents of mainland China is changing hands on the black market, even as telecoms companies start making mandatory face scans of anyone setting up a new account, according to recent reports.
A recent report in the Beijing News found that huge collections of facial photographs are being openly advertised online, starting at around 3,000 yuan (U.S.$425) for 24,000 photos, many of whom were being traded without the consent of the people involved.
Reported by Lee Tsz-tsz, Ma Lap-hak, Sing Man and Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.