China Rolls Out Facial Recognition Payment Technology

A display for facial recognition and artificial intelligence is seen on monitors at Huawei's Bantian campus on April 26, 2019 in Shenzhen, China. Huawei is Chinas most valuable technology brand, and sells more telecommunications equipment than any other company in the world, with annual revenue topping $100 billion U.S. Headquartered …
Kevin Frayer/Getty

Chinese companies are giving shoppers the option to pay with a facial recognition system that asks them to do little more than smile into a camera to identify themselves.

The convenience of such a system obviously comes with some privacy concerns, not least the way every camera in China tends to lead back to its massive state intelligence apparatus.

Biometric systems are not unheard of in the Western world. Amazon, for example, is testing a payment system for its Whole Foods stores called “Orville” that would allow shoppers to pay by waving their hands in front of a scanner. Amazon went with hand scanners because it thought customers would see facial recognition systems as “creepy” and intrusive.

Chinese shoppers appear to have fewer qualms about facial recognition systems, sometimes called “smile-to-pay” to take a bit of that creepy edge off. Tech giants Alibaba and Tencent are spending billions to roll out facial payment systems in hundreds of cities nationwide. 

Chinese consumers, perhaps already fatalistic about the degree of electronic surveillance their government keeps them under and thinking they might as well get some convenience perks out of the situation, are embracing the new technology and praising how easy it makes the checkout process.

As Wired noted on Tuesday, Chinese commercial facial recognition systems are a direct outgrowth of technology devised for the surveillance state and field-tested in places like the infamous Xinjiang province, which China turned into a full-service high-tech dungeon for its restless Muslim inhabitants. Commercial applications will, in turn, feed even more information into the gigantic databases China is using to feed its artificial intelligence programs, which already have far more data to play with than programs in Western nations with deep privacy concerns.

AFP quoted a few happy shoppers on Wednesday:

“I don’t even have to bring a mobile phone with me, I can go out and do shopping without taking anything,” says Bo Hu, chief information officer of Wedome bakery, which uses facial payment machines across hundreds of stores.

“This was not possible either at the earliest stage of mobile payment — only after the birth of facial recognition technology can we complete the payment without anything else,” he explains.

[…] At the IFuree self-service supermarket in Tianjin, a 3D camera scans the faces of those entering the store — measuring width, height and depth of the faces — then another quick scan again at check-out.

“It’s convenient because you can buy things very quickly,” says retiree Zhang Liming after using facial payment for her groceries. 

“It’s different from the payment in the traditional supermarket, in which you have to wait in the checkout line and it’s very troublesome,” she argues.

Amazon is also experimenting with a system that would eliminate the checkout process entirely by identifying customers when they enter the store, monitoring every item they take off the shelves and automatically billing them for everything they leave with. Amazon’s approach has thus far been based around shoppers having an app installed on their phones that would identify them when they enter the store.

Advocates of commercial facial recognition say it is more private and secure than other payment methods because there are no passwords to steal; the possibility that thieves could fool the system by disguising themselves is dismissed as remote. 

One of the biggest hurdles to widespread consumer acceptance discussed by companies pushing the technology is similar to the reason video phone calls did not catch on as much as old-time futurists anticipated: people are vain and self-conscious so they do not like having their faces scanned. Alibaba’s Alipay system addressed this concern by promising to add “beautifying filters” to its facial payment system so the screen seen by customers will display a CGI-enhanced glamour shot instead of what they would see if they looked in a mirror.

China researcher Adam Ni of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia warned AFP there is a “big risk” that data harvested by facial recognition payment systems could be used by the oppressive Chinese government for “surveillance, monitoring, the tracking of political dissidents, social and information control, ethnic profiling, as in the case with Uighurs in Xinjiang, and even predictive policing.”

One of the big new competitors in China’s facial recognition market is WeChat, which markets a system called “Frog Pro.” WeChat recently came under scrutiny for allowing the Chinese Communist Party to monitor and censor messages sent by its users, including those outside China.

In the United States, Facebook was sued last month for using facial recognition systems on photos uploaded by users without their consent, a judgment that could cost the company billions of dollars in damages. If the decision is not reversed on appeal, it could make American companies more reluctant to embrace facial recognition systems on the scale they are appearing in China.

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