Two recent news stories show how facial recognition technology is being developed and rolled out on an increasingly wider scale across China.

First up: police in the southeastern water town of Wuzhen nabbed an escaped convict using a Baidu-built facial recognition program that’s been online in the city since November of last year. “As the permanent venue for [the World Internet Conference], security is especially important for the town. As such we have expanded the range and density of video surveillance, enhanced its network and tightened its management,” a Wuzhen cop told China News, as translated by TechNode. Seems like a pretty poor choice of locale to go on the lam.


Facial Recognition Technology Leads to Immediate Arrest of 25 Wanted Criminals at Beer Festival

The same technology was recently deployed to nab a less nefarious foe: truant students at a university in Nanjing. The BBC reports:

According to Beijing News, students in six classes at the Communications University of China in the eastern city of Nanjing are being told to stand in front of an interactive screen when they arrive for lectures. They have their photos taken, which are then matched against those in the university’s database within a couple of seconds. The device is highly accurate at identifying students from their appearance, even if they change their hair or wear makeup. Professor Shen Hao says it has proven effective in helping lecturers to identify students who regularly skip classes.

Facial recognition is also being deployed in the commercial sector, with pioneering projects in Hangzhou allowing users to pay for things like lattes and chicken wings with a scan of their face, which is matched to their mugshot in the database of financial service providers like Alipay.


No Cash, No Cashiers

This kind of tech makes a lot of people uneasy, and understandably so. Though some of these facial recognition systems are being developed independently by private companies — Alipay’s, for instance, is based on photos users upload to the platform themselves — the government is also amassing its own, centralized database of biometric data such as facial scans, which eventually could be the largest such database in the world.

The South China Morning post reported earlier this month that “China is building the world’s most powerful facial recognition system with the power to identify any one of its 1.3 billion citizens within three seconds.” Ultimately there will be a fine line between the use of facial scans in the private and public sectors. A journalist friend of mine who covered the recent 19th Party Congress told me that the government was proudly touting “face scan payment” as a bold new vector of technological progress unique to China — a line echoed in State paper People’s Daily’s list of 100 key terms from the Congress:

Facial scan pay arguably is an innovation claimable by China — but it’s also the tip of the spear to build a database which could have much deeper implications for personal privacy and security. If your only skin in the game is a desire to shave seconds off your coffee shop queue, then no worries for you. If you’re slightly more concerned by the massive scale-up of facial recognition tech, here are some handy hacks.

Cover photo: NDTV