Chinese Company Uses Facial Recognition to Restrict Teen Gamers’ Use

For almost every video game restriction, children and teenagers will find a way around it.

But the room to maneuver is shrinking in China, where underage players are required to log on using their real names and identification numbers as part of countrywide regulations aimed at limiting screen time and keeping internet addiction in check. In 2019, the country imposed a cybercurfew barring those under 18 from playing games between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Recognizing that wily teenagers might try to use their parents’ devices or identities to circumvent the restrictions, the Chinese internet conglomerate Tencent said this week that it would close the loophole by deploying facial recognition technology in its video games.

“Children, put your phones away and go to sleep,” Tencent said in a statement on Tuesday when it officially introduced the features, called Midnight Patrol. The wider rollout set off a debate on Chinese internet platforms about the benefits and privacy risks of the technology.

Some were in favor of the controls, saying they would combat adolescent internet addiction, but they also questioned how the data would be relayed to the authorities. Others said Tencent was assuming an overly paternalistic role.

“This type of thing ought to be done by the parents,” a user named Qian Mo Chanter wrote on Zhihu, a Quora-like platform. “Control the kid and save the game.”

Thousands of internet users complained about the tightening controls and the shrinking space for anonymity in cyberspace. A hashtag on Weibo, a microblogging platform, reminded gamers to make sure they were fully dressed in case the camera captured more than their faces.

Xu Minghao, a 24-year-old programmer in the northern city of Qingdao, said he would delete any video games that required facial recognition, citing privacy concerns. “I don’t trust any of this software,” he wrote on Zhihu.

Privacy concerns were widely discussed when the real-name registration requirement for minors was introduced in 2019. Describing facial recognition technology as a double-edged sword, the China Security and Protection Industry Association, a government-linked trade group, said in a paper published last year that the mass collection of personal data could result in security breaches.

Tencent said it began testing facial recognition technology in April to verify the ages of avid nighttime players and has since used it in 60 of its games. In June, it prompted an average of 5.8 million users a day to show their faces while logging in, blocking more than 90 percent of those who rejected or failed facial verification from access to their accounts.

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