China state TV raps Kohler, BMW for using facial recognition

The accusation came in an annual China Central Television broadcast Monday to mark Consumers' Day that often highlights complaints against foreign brands.

Published - March 16, 2021 12:40 pm IST - Beijing

Chinese state TV has criticised bathroom fixtures brand Kohler and automaker BMW for using facial recognition to identify customers in a possible violation of privacy rules that took effect this year.

The accusation came in an annual China Central Television broadcast Monday to mark Consumers' Day that often highlights complaints against foreign brands.

Facial recognition is used by China's government as part of a nationwide surveillance network to monitor the public through millions of video cameras, eavesdropping on email and messaging services and other technology.

Some Chinese developers market facial recognition technology abroad, prompting complaints they might be helping oppressive governments.

Kohler Co stores, BMW dealerships and MaxMara fashion boutiques are among retailers that use facial recognition to identify and track customers, often without telling them, CCTV said.

On Tuesday, 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 apologize to customers!” Kohler said on its social media account. “Kohler respects the rights and interests of consumers, takes warning and seriously corrects problems.” Faces are considered “sensitive personal information” under a legal change that took effect Jan. 1, CCTV said. It said anyone processing personal information must obtain the individual's consent.

The growing number of companies and devices that allow use of facial recognition as a substitute for a password means that if that information leaks, “it will seriously threaten the privacy and property security of users,” CCTV said.

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. Phone calls to MaxMara's China headquarters in Beijing weren't answered.

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