WeChat and Guangzhou government issue virtual national identity cards, to replace physical cards
Requires a user to validate themselves through the WeChat app, using facial recognition
What are the possible lessons for a digital identity framework in Australia?
Source: China News
Point of View
The latest foray by WeChat is into public-sector digital identification in China. Therefore, further enmeshing itself in the lives of Chinese consumers.
Tencent’s WeChat and the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau (local police) are piloting an official virtual identity card in the city’s Nansha district. The virtual card replaces the existing physical identity card and can be used for accommodation, ticketing and government services. It is expected that the virtual card will be rolled out to people across the country during 2018. Nearly 1 billion of China’s 1.4 billion residents are WeChat account holders.
Nansha residents can obtain a digital identity at an authorised office using a trusted terminal device. Using the ‘micro-police’ identity authentication app, the resident scans the QR code of the terminal device, enters their mobile number and sets an eight-digit passcode, and then scans their face.
A ‘lightweight’ version is also available, which requires a user to validate themselves through the WeChat app using facial recognition. The user does not need to use a government terminal only their smartphone. The lightweight version can only be used to prove ‘I am me’, for example for real-name registration in internet cafes. Presumably, the lightweight version relies on Tencent ensuring that its account holders are using their real names. After a long history of attempting to enforce real-name registration online, Chinese authorities introduced the regulations in October 2017.
The First Research Institute of the Ministry of Public Security issues the virtual cards and securely verifies residents’ identities through the ‘Internet + Trusted Identity Authentication Platform’, which it introduced in April 2016. When required to verify themselves to a third party, for example a hotel, residents do so with facial recognition using the WeChat app. Encrypted biometric data is sent from the app via the Trusted Platform to the Ministry. Upon arrival, the Ministry’s AI system automatically compares data with the reference biometric data. Providing it matches, the system informs the third party that the resident’s identity is verified, without the resident needing to provide personal details to the third party.
Interestingly, Alipay also tested a digital identity card system in Wuhan in 2016. But details on any progress are scarce.
WeChat is also providing a legal service platform to two courts, in Beijing and Guangzhou, to speed up the process of filing lawsuits. The service enables users to verify their identities, using facial and voice recognition, submit documents and pay legal fees.
The new identity system is expected to deter identity theft, which is a major issue and a priority for the Chinese government. It is widely known that the government has access to its citizens’ data, including that collected through Tencent, Ant Financial and other technology companies.
Introducing an electronic version of the national identity card could lead to further calls from civil liberty groups relating to further reductions in individuals’ privacy.
Digital identity is a key priority for Australia. The Australian Payments Council is in the early stages of developing a framework. China and Australia have very different cultures and political systems, which mean that the starting points for digitial identity are not the same, and experiences are not easily transferable.
However, it will be interesting to observe from the China experience what the impact will be on the incidence of identity theft, and any issues or concerns arising from holding a centralised database.