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China's facial recognition

December 20, 2019

China’s rise as a technology powerhouse has been meteoric in the past decade. Once mediocre at best, China’s facial recognition technology has matured beyond expectations.

The fundamental of facial recognition is to capture the image of a human’s face on a camera and compare the facial nodes against a number of records in the database. The key challenge of facial recognition is achieving a low error rate in matching the results.

China is undoubtedly working diligently in overcoming the hurdle.

China's facial recognition

How China’s facial recognition is changing the public’s lifestyle

In 2017, China declared that it is building a massive facial recognition capable of matching against its record of 1.3 billion citizens within 3 seconds with 90% accuracy. While the gigantic system is yet to be completed, China’s push in facial recognition technology has been felt in smaller scales.

A subway station in Zhengzhou has put a facial recognition payment system to the test, with 200,000 voluntary users opting for payment via face scan. This recent trial in September 2019 means users no longer have to flip out their smartphones for payments when using the service.

In Hangzhou, a safari park has adopted facial recognition for ticket purchases. A KFC outlet also offered a ‘smile to pay’ option with the aid of a facial recognition system and smartphone. The Hangzhou Marriott Hotel has also incorporated facial recognition check-in for guests.

Schools, airports, ride-sharing, retails, and banking are not spared from the technology invasion. Things get interesting when China’s government uses facial recognition technology in enforcement and regulation. Its name-and-shame campaign against jaywalkers in Shanghai raises eyebrows.

However, it is China’s recent regulation of making facial recognition scans mandatory for mobile user's registration that will suggest the scale of the technology application in the near future.

China’s Facial Recognition: Privacy Intrusion Or Convenience?

Facial recognition technology is a double-edged sword, and the people in China are feeling both the convenience and concerns of its use. Boarding commuters by just showing your face to the camera is indeed convenience. Smiling to pay for Colonel Sander’s finest crispy chicken redefines fast-food.

But the real concerns are how secure is the database and the potential of privacy intrusion. 79% of China’s citizens are worried about data leaks, which may lead to fraud. In all fairness, China’s data privacy laws are way lacking compared to its superior technology.

The lack of regulations has also led to a public outcry on how the technology is implemented. A professor has sued the Hangzhou safari for acquiring his biometric data without consent, while parents are outraged when facial recognition systems are set up in a university in Nanjing without prior notice.

China’s ‘obsession’ with facial recognition also triggered worries that it will be used to suppress political dissent, such as in the Xinjiang region and spread to other autocratic countries that share similar ideologies.

There’s no doubt that China will continue its push with facial recognition ambition. For the locals, the question remains if it has the political will to curb leaks and misuse of the astronomical records in the database.