China to launch digital ID connected to popular WeChat messaging service

A new program in China will bridge the gap between physical identity cards and the virtual service WeChat, allowing citizens a new form of digital ID secured through facial recognition technology.

China’s city of Guangzhou, home to some 25 million people in its metro area, will launch a pilot program for the new digital ID service. It is expected that the program will debut nationwide as soon as January, according to the Financial Times.

The new program will hinge upon WeChat, a messaging and social networking service from Tencent that boasts 902 million average daily active users.

WeChat is already used for mobile payments and financial services. But tying it to China’s national ID cards gives it the potential to tap into other popular uses, like opening a bank account, accessing government programs, or checking in on a train.

The new program leverages WeChat to identify the person through facial recognition via their smartphone. Once their face is verified, the user is given a limited-function digital ID, capable of basic tasks like registering at an internet cafe.

Citizens can upgrade to a full-function digital ID by visiting a physical terminal in Guangzhou. There, they must scan their physical ID card to offer more definitive proof of their identity and access all services available, like opening a business.

The new system spotlights how governments can look to public-private partnerships to leverage both modern technology, as well as huge databases of personally identifiable information on social media.

In the U.S., where identity verification has been pinned to a Social Security number system that was not intended for such purposes, critics have called for the government and private industry to come together to find a better, more convenient and more secure solution. Privacy advocates also see the possibility of change as an opportunity to reconsider how companies handle citizens’ highly sensitive personal data.

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