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Tencent adds sweeping face scans just to catch kids playing games past the curfew

Tencent, the largest gaming company in the world, is rolling out face recognition technology that is likely to scan the faces of many players every single night, with the aim of catching minors breaking a curfew and helping to prevent video game addiction (via Gizmodo). There are many controversial concepts in one sentence, no?

This is what is happening, according to the company and the Chinese analyst Daniel Ahmad.

In China, the prevention of video game addiction is literally the law of the land, one that has evolved for many years but has recently reached some important milestones. In 201

9, China introduced a law banning minors from playing video games between 22:00 and 08:00 or from playing more than 90 minutes on a weekday. And as of June 1, 2021, every game in the country is required to add a new authentication system that checks a player’s Chinese national identity (including their age) to prevent underage players from crossing these boundaries, all to prevent dependence on video games.

In fact, Tencent had already been using Chinese IDs for a couple of years, including attempts to curb addiction, but the company tells us that underage players continued to find ways to get around them – like using their parents’ accounts.

The so-called “Midnight Patrol” face recognition system is an attempt to verify that an “adult” is in fact an adult. It was launched on July 5 in over 60 mobile games, including hits Honor of Kings and Play for peace – aka China’s more patriotic version of PUBG. The face recognition system is only for China and only for mobile games, the company confirms, so PC games as League of Legends is currently excluded. It is all part of the company’s ongoing “Balanced Online Entertainment System” initiative, says Tencent The Verge, which also includes its “Parental Guardian Platform” and “Healthy Gameplay System” designed to tell parents what their children are up to and remind users when they’ve been playing for too long, respectively.

According to Ahmad, whose company Niko Partners sometimes collaborates with Tencent, this is how the face recognition part of the system works: check the box in Tencent’s backend and ask the user to verify their identity through face recognition, either through that database or through a database they have already used, ”says Ahmad.

Tencent says it does not store any of the new scans itself; instead, it sounds like it’s based on China’s already established face recognition monitoring system, and any scans Chinese users will have already given Tencent. Ahmad says that all Tencent games in China use WeChat IDs for login, and “Midnight Patrol” can also use China’s national citizen database with face images to check against. China’s surveillance engine has, of course, been used for more disturbing things, such as the country’s human rights violations against Uighur Muslims.

Tencent makes it sound as if it will not necessarily scan the faces of minors. When a user who plays games after hours is asked for a face scan, they can only refuse, at which time they are treated as minors and started out of the game, according to a machine translation of Tencent’s press release.

Tencent actually started testing this face recognition system in 2018, and Ahmad says that it has not changed much since then. He says the company also started running this type of check last year when Tencent realized that many children were likely to steal grandparents’ accounts. “Many children live with their grandparents because their parents work in the city, so they will probably use their grandparents’ account without their knowledge,” says Ahmad.

Ahmad believes that the measure will probably not be so controversial in China because the facial checks, while intrusive, primarily affect adults, and that the online feeling so far seems quite predictable. “If you look online and read the comments, many older parents say this is great, because games are awful,” he says. “It’s always the older generations who say that games ruin it for our children, so there’s some acceptance among the older generation because that’s the way it should be.”

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