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Politics

Asia's governments keep a close eye as consumers spill their data

China, India and others scoop up personal information -- to what end?

A growing number of consumers in Asia are flocking toward technology in pursuit of convenience and better lifestyles, but many governments are building systems to keep an eye on people.

TOKYO -- Every day, the activities of thousands of companies and millions of people around the world generate vast amounts of personal data. Such torrents of information are a potentially rich resource that can drive economic growth when processed for commercial use. But they can also be used by political forces to control people's behavior.

In Asia, especially, a growing number of consumers are flocking to advanced information technology in pursuit of greater convenience and better lives. At the same time, many governments are developing systems to keep their eyes on people.

Much of the personal data now being generated comes from seemingly harmless consumer products.

The Tokyo-based health care startup Universal View, is developing smart contact lenses that can monitor wearers' health. Prototype lenses just 2.3cm in diameter are embedded with tiny chips of just 2mm on each side that measure the blood sugar level from tears, the heart rate from weak electric current passing through the body, as well as the blood pressure. The data is then transmitted wirelessly to external devices. The company aims to bring the product to the market by 2020.

South Korea's Samsung Electronics is also working on smart contact lenses that track users' health.

Visions of such products and other small devices that can be attached to or inserted in the body have led to the latest IT buzz term: "Internet of Bodies."

In the world of finance, J.Score, a consumer credit venture set up jointly by Mizuho Bank and SoftBank Group, has rolled out a loan service that uses artificial intelligence to assess applicants' ability to repay loans.

By answering more than 150 questions seemingly unrelated to creditworthiness, prospective borrowers can receive collateral-free loans at annual interest rates from as low as 0.9% to as high as 12%, depending on credit scores. Among the questions are those on the size of applicants' home TV sets, and the key factors applicants consider when choosing clothes.

Smart contact lenses measure blood sugar levels from tears, and heart rates from weak electric current signals in the body.

The loan service was inspired by Sesame Credit, a credit scoring system developed by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group. The system calculates customers' credit scores by using data about their payments carried out through Alibaba Group services. The rewards for scoring well include exemptions from deposit payments for bicycle-sharing services amid  hotel reservations, and easy access to collateral-free loans. 

Consumers can get higher scores by providing more personal information -- a strong incentive to share private data.

Chen Long, chief strategy officer of Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial Services Group, which operates Sesame Credit, sums up the service's philosophy such: "Credit is a value."

In many Western countries, there are growing concerns about the risk of compromising individual financial opportunities with credit scoring systems based on computer analysis of personal data.

Such concerns are reflected in the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into force in May. The regulation guarantees the right not to have important decisions on consumers made by artificial intelligence.

Asian consumers may have different attitudes toward data privacy and protection, and may be more willing to share personal data in exchange for greater safety and convenience.

In urban areas of China, mobile payments have been taking off. Chinese consumers have been enchanted by the convenience of cashless payments, and appear much less concerned about how their private data might be used than their European and U.S. counterparts.

Many Asian countries are still governed by authoritarian political systems, including one-party states and military-controlled governments. Such regimes have a natural tendency to seek control of personal data to monitor individuals, and to maintain order using sophisticated technology.

In 2016, the Beijing West Railway Station, a major high-speed train terminal in the Chinese capital, introduced a facial recognition system for its ticket check-in process. To board trains, passengers must insert tickets and ID cards into checking machines and have their faces scanned by cameras. The gate opens after a few seconds when the faces have been matched to the photos on the ID cards.

While the system improves passenger convenience, it also allows the government to gather facial data on citizens.

People in China need to make and renew ID cards with facial photos approximately three times during their lifetimes. This makes it easy for the government to build up a database of people's personal information.

Chinese media reported in February that the railway police had started using facial-recognition sunglasses to catch suspects at train stations in Zhengzhou, the capital of central Henan Province.

Beijing West Railway Station has introduced a facial recognition system for its ticket check-in process.

The eyewear is equipped with a camera and linked to a central database that can match passenger profiles with criminal suspects. Police at the Zhengzhou East Railway Station reportedly used the smart glasses to arrest seven people suspected of being involved in kidnapping and hit-and-run cases, as well as 26 using fake ID.

In India, meanwhile, the government introduced a biometric personal identification number system in 2010 that connects fingerprints, iris scans and facial photos to a 12-digit ID number. It is one of the world's largest biometric ID programs, with more than 1.1 billion of the country's 1.3 billion people registered.

The program started as an attempt to ensure the efficient provision of welfare benefits to low-income earners. But it has made some wealthy Indians uneasy because of its ability to track money flows, giving the government a powerful tool to keep tabs on incomes and assets.

The international human rights group Human Rights Watch has sounded the alarm, especially to Asia. 

Notably, the group is concerned about China's efforts to establish a national voice biometric database. The group says the government is using a mass automated voice recognition and monitoring system -- developed by iFlytek, China's largest maker of speech recognition products -- to build a surveillance system that can identify voices in telephone conversations.

The pros and cons of robust information flows cut both ways. One factor behind the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the collective yearning for democracy among East Germans who had been watching Western TV via satellite broadcasts.

On the other hand, the ability of governments to collect and control personal data could lead to high-tech surveillance states beyond civilian control. Much of the world, and Asia in particular, could be on the cusp of a new era in which the ability of governments to gather vast amounts of data could create new forms of autocracy.

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