China state TV raps foreign firms for using facial recognition

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese state TV has criticised bathroom fixtures brand Kohler and automaker BMW for using facial recognition technology on visitors to their outlets in possible violation of privacy rules that took effect this year.

The accusation came in an annual CCTV broadcast on Monday to mark World Consumer Rights Day that often highlights complaints against foreign brands.

Facial recognition is used by China’s government as part of a surveillance network to monitor the public through millions of video cameras. Some Chinese developers market the technology abroad, prompting complaints they might be helping oppressive governments.

Kohler Co, BMW AG and Italian fashion brand MaxMara are among companies that use facial recognition on visitors, CCTV said. It said they failed to obtain permission from individuals that is required under legal changes that took effect January 1.

Yesterday, Kohler said it would stop using the technology. The company said facial recognition was used only to record how many customers visited shops and information about them wasn’t saved.

“We sincerely apologise to customers!” Kohler said on its social media account.

A shopper walks past a MaxMara clothing store at an upscale shopping mall in Beijing. PHOTO: AP

Faces are “sensitive personal information” under the law, CCTV said. It said the growing use of facial recognition as a substitute for a password by companies means a leak would “seriously threaten” privacy and security.

MaxMara uses the system to measure customer flow in stores and doesn’t capture personal information, said a woman who answered the phone at the company’s China headquarters in Beijing. She said data are erased every night.

“We will not collect anyone’s facial information,” said the woman, who would not give her name.

Some public places in China such as airports have signs that tell visitors they are being recorded.

In 2019, a law professor sued a zoo in the eastern city of Hangzhou for requiring visitors to record their faces. News reports said the zoo responded by giving visitors the option of leaving their fingerprints instead.

BMW AG didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.