Internet & Tech

A decent match

Facial recognition tools spread across China

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Better than QR codes, experts say

From ale to jail – that is how the Guardian newspaper described it earlier this month when Chinese police used facial recognition technology to nab criminals and drug users at the Qingdao Beer Festival.

Over 100 people were rounded up during the two-week event, known as the Asian Oktoberfest.

One man had been on the run for over 10 years. People with a history of selling or using drugs were also pulled aside to be tested and searched.

The facial recognition software had “guaranteed the festival’s safety”, the local police chief said.

The use of facial recognition technology is exploding in China. In Jinan it is being used to shame jaywalkers. In Beijing it catches people taking too much toilet paper at public lavatories (see WiC361) and in the restive region of Xinjiang it is used to identify people as they pass though police check points.

The technology has also been rolled out for commercial use. Passengers in Wuhan can board high- speed trains without having to swipe their tickets through entry gates and in Hangzhou K Pro (an offshoot of Yum’s KFC) a facial recognition system allow diners to pay simply by “smiling” at a screen (see WiC379) with funds then deducted from their Alipay accounts. (A promotional video from Alipay shows the machine is able to identify customers correctly even if they are wearing heavy make-up or wigs.)

The advantage of these so-called shua lian or ‘face swipe’ systems is that they are quicker than traditional methods of payment – even digital systems that use QR codes like WeChat Pay or Alipay.

“It takes 10 seconds to carry out a face swipe transition, it takes about half a minute with WeChat Pay,” the Workers Daily quoted one expert as saying.

Another advantage mentioned in ThePaper.cn is that facial recognition is contactless and unlike other forms of ID or payment, a person’s face can hardly be left at home or on the bus.

“For elderly people in particular, face recognition is convenient and safe. It will save people from worrying about losing their passports or ID cards,” it said. Last September the Ministry of Justice introduced facial recognition for people sitting legal exams – to stop professionals taking the place of students. Some high schools also used the technology during this year’s gaokao (university entrance) exams.

Around 176 million surveillance cameras already keep a close eye on the Chinese population (one reason why Hikvision’s stock has done so well, see WiC375). By 2020 that number is expected to rise to over 600 million, reports the Wall Street Journal, as part of the government’s plan to create an “omnipresent, completely connected, always on and fully controllable” surveillance system.

Others have concerns about the government’s ambitions in the surveillance sphere, warning that the monitoring will be taken too far. Zhang Zhuting, a professor at a college for Party cadres, told the Legal Daily that police should inform the public when they enter an area under surveillance so as to protect their privacy. Another lawyer talking to ThePaper.cn said large-scale collection of biometric data was “a national security risk” because it could fall into the wrong hands.

Megvii, one of the largest Chinese companies making facial recognition software, uses national ID records – all Chinese citizens get a photo ID at 16 – as the basis for its own recognition database. Its Face++ technology powers the ‘smile to pay’ system being used at the K Pro restaurant in Hangzhou. Its competitor Yitu, which provided the technology for the Qingdao Beer Festival, boasts it has the world’s largest database of facial records, while Tencent, which is also developing the technology, has access to all the images shared on its social media app WeChat (now used by over 950 million Chinese).

The proliferation of facial recognition systems comes down to ‘last-mile’ improvements in the accuracy levels, which are now close to 100%. Most of the matching works by measuring certain features such as the distance between eyes or the length of the jaw. This is combined with features such as skin colour and tone. Most importantly the machines can tell a real person from a photo – to prevent identity theft. Only a few glitches need to be worked out: how to choose between identical twins, for instance.


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