China's biggest tech giants are working with authorities to create digital identifications as alternatives to the state-issued ID cards citizens must present to obtain many public and private services, such as boarding trains and checking into hotels.
The development underscores Beijing's increasing reliance on its big tech companies as it seeks to use the latest digital tools and capabilities to monitor its population.
China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported this week Tencent Holdings Ltd. and the Ministry of Public Security have launched a pilot digital identification system in the city of Guangzhou in the southern Guangdong province, which it said would eventually be rolled out nationwide.
The program allows people to create an official ID on Tencent's WeChat smartphone app, which is used by more than 980 million people in China for text messaging, mobile payments and other functions.
Under the pilot program, funded by the National Development and Reform Commission, people create a basic identity card by scanning an image of their face into a WeChat mini program, reading aloud four numbers that pop up on the screen and entering their identification number as well as other information.
A more advanced version, which can be used for formal purposes such as registering a company, requires users to log in via a secure terminal at approved locations and download a separate app.
Tencent declined to comment. The Ministry of Public Security had no immediate response to a request for comment.
Separately, Ant Financial Services Group--an affiliate of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.--is testing a program in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. It allows citizens to carry out online police business, such as making appointments to apply for a passport, via its Alipay mobile payment system.
Ant Financial is also working with traffic police in Wuhan and Shenzhen to use their Alipay identification as an official ID for certain purposes, such as routine traffic stops.
Governments using tech firms to execute state services isn't unprecedented, researchers and analysts say, but the extent to which Beijing is using private smartphone apps to advance its agenda takes it to a new level.
"I don't think the same kind of partnership between a social networking app and the government would happen elsewhere," Nicole Peng, a senior director at research firm Canalys, said of the WeChat ID program.
China is building one of the world's most sophisticated, high-tech systems to keep watch over its citizens. The increasing ties between the government and its tech sector has generated concerns by privacy advocates despite assurances by the companies that they safeguard the data.
"The data these companies collect is richer and thicker than what the government can collect, so the typical case now is the government going to the companies to get information," said Severine Arsene, managing editor of AsiaGlobal Online at the University of Hong Kong's Asia Global Institute. "This shows how much power the companies hold."
The move from physical ID cards to digital images makes sense in a country where people use their mobile devices for an array of daily functions, from shopping to paying restaurant bills to streaming videos, Ms. Arsene said, but it also carries risks that the companies might be seen to be working too closely with the government.
"These companies need to take care of their international reputation and what their investors think of them," Ms. Arsene said.
Hosting a huge repository of government data also increases the threat it could be compromised, said Paul McKenzie, a managing partner of law firm Morrison Foerster.
"In the course of deploying this technology, WeChat will end up with huge volumes of data associated with people's ID cards and information," Mr. McKenzie said. "WeChat's network will be a major target for hacks."
The WeChat ID pilot program has triggered hundreds of comments on social media, many applauding the development as an added convenience. But several raised concerns about Tencent's ties to the Chinese government.
"WeChat has penetrated into the government," one commenter said. "No one can stop it!"
Added another: "It is Tencent's Republic of China now."
Xiao Xiao contributed to this article.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 29, 2017 05:21 ET (10:21 GMT)