Privacy in China

DNA database

Around the world, governments approach privacy from a number of different angles, from the patchwork model of US laws, to the more comprehensive EU approach. Now, in China, proposed regulations would provide some of the strictest privacy policies in the world – at least where commercial companies are concerned. But this proposed legislation would do nothing to provide citizens with the right to privacy in terms of government surveillance. China’s famously censored and monitored internet infrastructure will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Even as the country has made some progress in favor of privacy over the years, and as more citizens gain appreciation for privacy in a culture that has long favored the many over the individual, citizens are still subject to a number of privacy-invading technologies in everyday life.

Two recent moves highlight how differently the Chinese government views privacy compared to the US and EU. One involves the dispensing of toilet paper. Yes, you read that correctly. In China, it’s not common for public restrooms to have toilet paper available, and in the restrooms where it is provided, it is often stolen for use at home by the impoverished population. In order to curb this trend, machines have been installed at certain restrooms that employ facial recognition software to dispense toilet paper, limiting the amount any one individual can receive in a given time frame. The privacy implications of this sort of machine in a public restroom are clear: who wants to be monitored while using the restroom?

The second move is even more worrisome: the development of a massive DNA database of people deemed to be “threats” by the Chinese government, including ethnic minorities and political dissidents. Citizens are often required to submit to DNA sampling as part of routine updates to passports or residency permits, and there appears to be very little oversight over how the information is collected, secured, and accessed by the police. Since DNA in an unalterable biometric, such a database could be a tool for complete surveillance of the population.

But as more and more of China is digitized, citizens might be able to push for greater privacy protections for both their on- and offline lives.