Internet cafes in Jiangxi have begun installing facial recognition technology to prevent underage children from using their services, according to China Daily.
China banned under-18s from using internet cafes in 2002, so customers are required to show ID. However, the law has been widely flouted, and two tragic incidents in recent years have drawn attention to the issue. In December 2014, a 17-year-old collapsed in an internet cafe at 3am and later died, while in October 2015 a 16-year-old died after spending seven hours at a computer when he should have been at school. Reports of the incidents leave it unclear as to what connection might have existed between internet use and the tragedies, although it is stated that the 17-year-old had earlier been drinking with friends.
Nor is it clear how the facial recognition technology will operate. No system yet developed can tell a person’s age from their face, so the images must be checked against a central database of children’s faces. Many parents will find this more sinister than the idea that a teenager might be using the internet in a public place.
The news reignites the debate about the balance between keeping our children safe and protecting their individual freedom. In the USA and the UK, some schools use fingerprint data as a payment system. Supporters of the practice argue that whole fingerprints are not stored, only points of comparison, and it’s better than children carrying cash or other means of payments which might be stolen by bullies. Opponents counter that fingerprints can be reconstructed from the data held, and that parents were very often not consulted before their children were fingerprinted. Nonetheless, the UK’s Information Commissioner has approved the practice, which is increasingly widespread.
In Hong Kong, on the other hand, the Privacy Commissioner intervened to ban fingerprinting when it was first introduced in 2006. “I considered the consent of the staff and pupils rather dubious, because primary school’s consent in law cannot be valid and there’s undue influence. If the school says, ‘give up your fingerprint’, there’s no way of negotiating,” Justice of the Peace Roderick Woo commented. “Also it’s not a good way to teach our children how to give privacy rights the consideration they deserve.”
Fingerprinting of course has unfortunate connotations of criminality, whereas all schools hold pictures of their pupils’ faces, without any protest from parents. Last year, two universities began using facial recognition technology to ensure students were turning up for classes, and not sending others to attend on their behalf. Complaints have mostly focused on how long it takes to register students using this system – up to 15 minutes for large classes.
Proposals that children should have microchips implanted under their skin at birth remain no more than conspiracy theories, publicity stunts, or April Fool’s jokes. However, the debate about how we keep our children safe, while still respecting their rights and privacy, rumbles on.
Photo: Maraparacc, via Wikimedia Commons