By Liza Lin and Shan Li
Chinese citizens registering for new mobile-phone services will now have to scan their faces to verify their identities, a move that will further increase the government's scrutiny of its people.
The requirement, which came into effect Sunday, is aimed at minimizing telephone fraud and preventing the reselling and illegal transfer of mobile phone cards, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said in a notice in September. In the past, Chinese citizens applying for a new mobile phone number had to personally present an identity card.
Concerns have grown as facial recognition becomes more and more prevalent in China, with authorities applying artificial intelligence to sift through reams of data collected in a bid to boost the economy and centralize oversight of the population.
China is home to some of the world's most prominent facial recognition startups, and citizens can make payments, board planes and enter office buildings with a quick scan of the face. Still, its use has been controversial, most notably in Xinjiang, a region in the country's northwest where authorities have used the technology to surveil its Uighur Muslim minority.
Analysts say the implementation of facial recognition for identity verification by Chinese telecom providers and the lack of any alternative for anyone looking to get mobile services raise fresh worries about security and privacy.
The ministry had given telecom companies until the end of November to put into place measures in their physical outlets that use "artificial intelligence or other technological means" to ensure the identity of new applicants can be verified with their facial data. The law doesn't make any reference to a user's nationality and doesn't address mobile virtual network operators, which resell services like roaming and text messaging from conventional operators. It also doesn't address existing mobile service customers.
The three carriers, China Mobile Ltd., China Telecom Corp. and China United Network Communications Group Co., known as China Unicom, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
The new regulation gives the Chinese state, which backs the country's three main telecom providers, the ability to better track people based on ethnicity and other factors, said Ben Cavender, Shanghai-based managing director at China Market Research Group.
"From the individual standpoint, it is a little scary because it feels like you don't have a lot of privacy," Mr. Cavender said. "There is a pervasive sense of someone knowing what you're doing at all times."
As concerns have mounted, so has a pushback against facial-recognition technology and other perceived intrusions into personal privacy. Last month, a Chinese law professor in eastern China raised a rare legal challenge over the way facial-recognition was being deployed commercially.
The lawyer, Guo Bing, sued a wildlife park and zoo in Hangzhou for violating his consumer rights by making it mandatory for park members with annual passes to share their facial data as part of a new entrance system. Mr. Guo declined to comment on the status of the case.
On Nov. 20, a group of more than two dozen companies led by Chinese artificial-intelligence startup SenseTime Group was created to develop a national standard for facial-recognition technology, the Hong Kong-based company wrote in a social media post last week. The standards will help regulate and improve how facial recognition is used in China, SenseTime said.
--Yang Jie and Raffaele Huang contributed to this article.
Write to Liza Lin at Liza.Lin@wsj.com and Shan Li at email@example.com