Chinese face-tracking tech bans foreigners from live streaming

A global inquest into TikTok has done little to deter China from pushing stricter censorship on its own soil.

Official documents from TikTok’s parent company ByteDance have confirmed rumours that the viral video app is constantly running facial recognition technology to monitor and censor content on Douyin – China’s version of the platform.

Douyin may appear innocuous on the surface, but Chinese streamers are subject to an intrusive regime of automated surveillance every time they broadcast on the app. Granted, China’s Ministry of Culture had made noise pertaining to the banning of foreigners in livestreams back in 2017, but the rule has only started being enforced since China’s Security Law came into effect this July.

On that note, Douyin has reportedly started suspending users who speak in Cantonese during streams, as the branch of Chinese language is heavily associated with Hong Kong, and symbols of State independence are no longer welcome.

Last week, a foreign national found himself booted from Douyin within ‘about a minute’ for appearing briefly in someone else’s livestream, and his story garnered a fair bit of attention online. Joshua Dummer’s wife, who is a Chinese citizen, was broadcasting from their Beijing apartment and sidled over to ask how his day was going when the stream suddenly went dark. Dummer took to Twitter to reveal that the pair had been met with an error message forbidding the presence of foreign users without ‘government permission’.

When approached for comment by The Telegraph, a Douyin spokesperson asserted that all surveillance and moderation is carried out by humans ‘in real time’, including Dummer’s case. However, one look at the small print of Douyin’s ‘Mechanism of Live Video Streaming Platforms’ suggests they may have been embellishing at the time. The text reveals that more often than not, breaches of the platform’s terms and conditions are tipped off by automated tracking systems before being handled by humans. Considering the fact that Douyin has 400 million users in China and that Dummer’s live was taken down within a minute, the latter conclusion makes a lot more sense, right?

If you hadn’t tweaked already, this would essentially mean that some form of autonomous tracking tech – whether it be voice recognition, or a face scan application against national IDs – is constantly running in the background of the app. The Communist Party of China has been wanting to fully standardise a citizen score/reputation system within its borders for close to a decade now, and certain online threads are adamant that Douyin is being used a tool of mass surveillance to that end.

Prior to these developments, China was already in hot water over accusations of hidden spyware and data collection exploits, and this news will not do any wonders to bringing big markets back onside again. The US and UK are currently mulling over the possibility of joining India in ousting 2020’s most popular app completely, and you’d best believe they’ll want full transparency on exactly what TikTok is and what processes it uses going forward.

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