Popular TV show in China exposes illegal data collection by domestic and foreign brands
Published: Mar 16, 2021 01:33 AM
facial recognition photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

A widely popular television program in China aired on Monday, the World Consumer Rights Day, dealt a serious blow to companies for offences related to facial recognition technology, collection of personal information and false online advertising.

The show, produced by China Media Group (CMG), denounces consumer rights violations by domestic and foreign businesses and has become a major hit. It shows the serious consequences for the image and operations of the companies involved in such violations. It also spreads awareness among Chinese consumers to protect their rights through more channels, analysts say.

In addition to the traditional features of the show, this year's event also included the launch of a new regulatory guideline for online transactions, issued by the State Administration for Market Regulations. It is aimed at controlling online platforms and make them accountable for their responsibility to protect consumer rights.

At this year's show, the reports largely concentrated on the use of facial recognition technology, online job recruitment platforms, food safety and healthcare advertising.

At least four foreign brands were mentioned in the show, the US-based manufacturing firm Kohler, the German carmaker BMW, the Italian fashion brand Max Mara and the Japanese car brand Infiniti. The show exposed that cameras, powered by facial recognition technologies, were installed at some stores of the four brands and collected massive information from costumers.

Employees at Kohler's stores in various Chinese cities, including Shanghai, told CMG that the stores installed the cameras and collected information about the customers, including how many times they have visited a Kohler store and which location.

The CMG report noted that facial recognition data is a sensitive personal and private information, whose collection must be authorized by the person.

In response to the claims by CMG, a Kohler China employee said that the company was aware of the issue and would provide feedback to the relevant department, according to on Monday.

Given the potential damage to a company's image when denounced by the show, many foreign and domestic companies usually prepare a response in advance, according to some media reports.

The BWM dealership in Shenzhen, operated by China ZhengTong Auto Services Holdings, was also found to have installed cameras to gather information on visitors to the store, according to CMG. Another BMW dealership in Wuxi, East China's Jiangsu Province, also had similar cameras.

CMG found similar cameras at Max Mara stores and did not notify visitors about data collection. Some Infinity dealerships were denounced to have requested customers to sign unfair agreements.

However, more domestic companies were denounced by the show for violations of consumers' rights. Among the top companies mentioned were several popular job recruitment sites in China, including Zhilian Zhaopin, 51job and Liepin. The three sites sold personal information to companies and some data was leaked to the black market , according to CMG.

"The hope was that the show exposes hot issues this year, that is online platforms… where illegal activities are prevalent," Liu Dingding, a Beijing-based internet industry analyst, told the Global Times on Monday, regarding false advertisement, counterfeit goods and unfair practices.

Liu noted that the consumer day show, which includes undercover reports by CMG reporters, and is often compared to the American 60 Minutes news show, has become an icon of the fight against consumer rights violation. The show, has raised awareness among Chinese consumers to protect their own rights and made more channels available to them to help expose more offenses by businesses.  

Other online platforms mentioned include UC Browser, which is owned by the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group. It was found that the web browser published false advertisement for healthcare products and medicines.

In a statement published on Monday, the firm said that they were paying close attention to the matter and will review their policies.  

Other major issue exposed at the show include counterfeit Nike shoes sold on online shopping sites, illegal information collected by computer software and the use of the drug Clenbuterol in pork production.