China shoppers adopt facial recognition payment technology

Beijing

NO CASH, no cards, no wallet and no smart phone: China's shoppers are increasingly purchasing goods by looking into a screen as the country embraces facial-recognition technology.

China's mobile payment infrastructure is one of the world's most advanced, but the new systems being rolled out nationwide could make even QR (Quick-Response) codes seem old-fashioned.

Customers make a purchase by simply posing in front of point-of-sale (POS) machines equipped with cameras, after having linked an image of their face to a digital-payment system or bank account.

Bo Hu, chief information officer of Wedome bakery, which uses facial payment machines across hundreds of its stores, said: "I don't even have to bring a mobile phone with me, I can go out and do shopping without carrying anything. This was not possible at the earliest stage of mobile payment; only after the birth of facial-recognition technology have we been able to complete the payment without anything else."

The software is already widely used, often to monitor citizens; it has been credited with nabbing jaywalkers and catching criminals. The authorities have come under fire for using it to crack down on and monitor dissent, particularly in China's surveillance-heavy region of Xinjiang.

Adam Ni, China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, said: "There's a big risk... that the state could use this data for their own purposes, such as surveillance, monitoring, the tracking of political dissidents, social and information control, ethnic profiling, ... and even predictive policing. This is certainly one of the more contentious aspects of the gathering of facial-recognition data and the usage of them."

Despite the concerns over data security and privacy, consumers seem unperturbed as facial-recognition payment hits the High Street.

Alipay, the financial arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba, has been leading the charge in China with devices already in 100 cities. The firm is predicting enormous growth in the sector and recently launched an upgrade of its "Smile-to-Pay" system, using a machine roughly the size of an iPad.

Alipay will spend three billion yuan (S$582 million) over three years to implement the technology.

Tencent, which runs the WeChat app with 600 million users, unveiled its new facial payment machine called "Frog Pro" in August; start-ups are also trying to enter the industry.

Zhang Mengmeng, an analyst at Counterpoint, said: "(Facial payment) certainly has the potential to become popular with the push from major mobile payment players. Alipay is spending (billions) to popularise facial payment technology by giving out subsidies to vendors and rewards for consumers who use facial payment."

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

Retiree Zhang Liming, who used the technology to pay for her groceries, said: "It's convenient because you can buy things very quickly. In a traditional supermarket, you have to wait in the checkout line and it's very troublesome."

The technology also offers a way to collect more data. Jeffrey Ding, researcher at the Center for the Governance of AI at Oxford University, said: "Much of the smart retail trend is company-driven for two ends in particular: to prevent shoplifting and to get better data on consumer preferences for analytics and marketing."

The technology feeds into a broader state drive in China for smart tech and Artificial Intelligence; Beijing is looking to make facial recognition one of the pillars of the AI industry by providing tech companies with vast amounts of data.

Supporters of the technology wave aside privacy concerns. IFuree engineer Li Dongliang argued that the technology actually helps protect privacy: "In the traditional way, it's very dangerous to enter your password if someone is beside you. Now, we can complete the payment with our faces, which helps us secure our account."

But for many consumers, it is vanity rather than privacy that puts them off using such systems. A poll by news portal Sina Technology found that more than six in 10 respondents said scanning their faces for payments made them feel "ugly".

In response, Alipay pledged to introduce "beautifying filters" into all the Alipay cameras. It said: "Now your face will be more beautiful than using a beauty camera!" AFP