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AI and China’s ‘stealing faces’ – 偷脸 (Tōu liǎn)4 min read

29 March 2021 3 min read


AI and China’s ‘stealing faces’ – 偷脸 (Tōu liǎn)4 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

This week China celebrated World Consumer Day with its ‘3.15 Gala’ (3.15晚会) broadcast on CCTV.

Some of the dodgy deals called out included improper use of technologies such as AI in illegally gathering customer data.

A question asked by media was:

人工智能是善还是恶? is AI for good, or for evil?

One new word in particular stood out:

  • 偷脸 (Tōu liǎn) – ‘sealing faces’, or more accurately the improper and illegal gathering and using of customer facial data without their knowledge

    人脸识别技术的滥用 – abuse of facial recognition tech

With this tech, companies can suss out within seconds the gender, age, accessories worn, previous visits, even the mood of customers entering their shops.

This data is then tagged and helps inform sales staff how to best to get them to part with their cash.

It’s often said that data protection is not such a big issue for people in China, with statements such as this from Baidu CEO, Richard Li (李彦宏), in 2018:

中国人对隐私问题的态度更开放,也相对来说没那么敏感 – Chinese people have a more open attitude towards privacy issues; they are relatively less sensitive about [sharing their data].

Well, I suppose he would say that. But it might be changing now that people’s faces are being stolen.

Guilty companies include well-known international brands such as BMW, Max Mara and Kohler. Although, the face-stealing tech they use is Chinese.

Useful words

Privacy and data protection are interesting topics to wade into in Chinese. Here are some useful words to help you look like you know what you’re talking about.

  • 隐私换方便 (Yǐnsī huàn fāngbiàn) – ‘using private data in exchange for convenience’

    简单来说,就是中国人愿意用「隐私换方便」- put simply, Chinese people are more willing to use their personal data for the sake of making life easier

  • 打上标签 (Dǎshàng biāoqiān) – to ‘label’ or to ‘tag’ (this is different to 贴上标签 from a previous issue, which normally refers to abstractly labelling someone)

    在抓取人脸之后,性别、年龄、是否佩戴眼镜、第几次到店,甚至当时的心情状态等个人信息都被打上标签,成为了营销的手段 – after acquiring customer facial data relating to gender, age, if they are wearing glasses, how many times they have visited the store, even their mood, they can be tagged in the system, which then becomes part of the sales tactics of the company

  • 暗中 (Àn zhōng) – ‘in the dark’, secretly; also 不知情 – without knowledge of

    暗中收集上亿消费者人脸数据 – facial data of over one hundred millions customers has been gathered in secret

    消费者的人脸信息在不知情的情况下被获取 – customer facial data is gathered without them knowing

  • 暗戳戳 (Àn chuō chuō) – ‘to do something secretly’ (there are so many great ways to say this in Chinese!)

    房企暗戳戳开启「看脸」模式,借助人脸识别,帮房企判断购房者是「自然到访客户」还是「渠道客户」- Property companies secretly initiate their ‘face reading’ tech [as customers enter]. This helps them to recognise the faces of buyers which can help inform the sellers if they are are direct customers or if they’ve come through one of their sales channels.

  • Other great ways to say secretively, which can all be used in the same way, include:

    偷偷地 (Tōu tōu di) – secretly, sneakily

    偷偷摸摸地 (Tōu tōu mō mō di) – surreptitiously

    悄悄地 (Qiāo qiāo di) – quietly, or secretively (slightly more formal sounding)

    悄无声息 (Qiāo wú shēng xī) – quietly, on tip toes (more in written language)

    悄无声息地采集了用户的信息 – collected user data on the quiet


If you really want to impress with your Chinese and go deeper into this minefield, then you can drop one of these very old and beautiful one-liners:

  • 路漫漫其修远兮 (Lù mànmàn qí xiū yuǎn xī) – ‘there is a long road ahead’ (normally in finding the truth, or getting to grips with something difficult); I’ve heard this one in meetings three times in meetings in the last month so seems very useful!

    路漫漫其修远兮,吾将上下而求索 – the journey ahead will be slow and long; I will do all I can to explore it

    隐私保护还是路漫漫其修远兮 – [China’s laws for the] protection of privacy still have a long way to go

  • 杀人者兵也,非我也 (Shārén zhě bīng yě, fēi wǒ yě) – a famous line from a Mencius story during the Warring States period. It means: ‘It wasn’t me that killed him; it was the knife.’ In other words it’s not my responsibility [even though it really is]. This can be used as a standalone statement to describe someone, or a company, that is not taking repsonsbility for something.
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