Via China Digital Times, Xinhua reports “China’s Public Security Ministry on Friday opened a website for citizens to verify individual identity cards. Any ID card can be verified for a 5 yuan (73 U.S. cents) online payment at the site, www.nciic.org.com, with a few seconds.”
Well, first mistake is the address, which ought to be www.nciic.org.cn, or www.nciic.com.cn (I don’t believe you can have a “.org.com” domain). Both resolve to the National Citizen Identity Information Center, established by the Ministry of Public Security in 2001, and the website has been around since 2003 according to the Wayback Machine (the .com.cn address; the .org.cn address seems to have been registered in late 2007). The second mistake is that the ability to check whether an ID number is legit or a forgery on the web or by SMS has been available for about three years. In September 2005, Xinhua reported (in Chinese) that individuals could verify ID numbers at NCIIC’s webpage or at www.id5.cn, another site from the same organization, or SMS the numbers 10695110, 10665110 or 9951 (for China Unicom users). ID5 has a neat Flash demo of how to use it on your phone. The internet and phone services both cost 5 RMB. And they promoted it again in April 2006. In February 2007, Xinhua announced the service again (in English) because the Population Management Information Database that the service queries had been completed in late 2006. But the one recent report states that according to sources in the Center, while major cities have joined the network, many other areas haven’t.
The current raft of stories about the service seem to focus on two concerns: that as a public service it ought to be free, and worries about privacy. In the 2006 Xinhua article, privacy concerns were addressed by an official who said that only the PSB could access details beyond the ID number, name and photo, and that the photos available on ID5 were too low quality to be used by forgers. The questions, though, may be why at the moment the “self-service” feature is on hiatus. It’s interesting, though, that it took 3 years of announcements before this caused a stir.
The National ID information network is actually quite significant. Unlike the U.S., where social security numbers have been centralized at the federal level as a form of ID, Chinese identity information has always been stored at a local level, in the hukou system, which is quite similar to the baojia system of the Qing Dynasty. This is one of the reasons China has so much graffiti advertising forgers – for pretty much the entire 20th century, it has been difficult for Chinese police, landlords or employers to verify if a non-local ID is genuine. While there are genuine concerns about Chinese authorities having too much information on citizens, it is worth noting that in many ways the Chinese system of local registration and documentation has been far less comprehensive, or effective, than Western societies.