Last April in the third-tier city of Nanchang, a man wanted for “economic crimes” was arrested from a crowd of 60,000 getting down to Cantopop legend Jacky Cheung. The 31-year old man had been pin-pointed from the sea of people walking into the stadium using facial recognition.
By next year, 626 million CCTV cameras are expected to be installed in China – almost one for every two people – ensuring citizens will think twice before jaywalking and even using too much loo paper in the John. China is already home to eight of the top-10 most surveilled cities in the world, with London and Atlanta coming in sixth and tenth.
Many western readers are likely to shudder at the thought of being watched by “big brother” – cities like San Francisco and Portland have gone as far as banning uses of facial recognition. On the contrary, most Chinese are accepting, even applauding of the increased peace of mind and security they bring.
Beyond the well-cited public safety functions of the technology, China’s tech companies are using it to keep the online masses a little more honest. Local Tinder-like service Tantan verifies profile pictures to ensure users aren’t luring in would-be dates with photos of super models when they actually look like hobbits.
Another common facial recognition application for businesses is to provide the convenience that Chinese consumers crave. In JD’s flagship cashless store in Beijing, shoppers walk in, take whatever they want from the weight-sensored smart shelves and then walk out of the store. CCTV cameras capture the face of the shopper and then charge them for the goods they selected on WeChat Pay when they leave. Easy and convenient.
Companies like Alibaba and Tencent-JD already have the facial profiles of more than 100 million people who have signed up to facial payments. It’s likely they will overlay these profiles with the other data they have such as ecommerce and mobile payments purchases, holidays taken, social media posts and a whole lot more, to provide truly personalised and customised experiences in the bricks & mortar retail world and offline advertising space. With chains like Hema rapidly expanding and even opening shopping malls, in addition to the wholesale acquisition of retail outlets by the tech giants, we can soon expect this to become mainstream.
Yet facial recognition isn’t all happy smiles in China. Last November, a well-known businesswomen was falsely accused of jaywalking after a camera scanned a bus advert which brandished her face. More recently, Taobao vendors were selling services which allowed the ‘hobbits’ to beat the facial recognition verifications on Tantan. The technology is improving all the time to counter such incidents, however there is also increasing pushback from consumers like the law professor who sued a wildlife park for their use of facial recognition. This is likely to drive more control and regulation of scanning faces from private businesses in China, but overall, nothing is going to stop the expeditious penetration and increasing uses for the technology in China. We’ll keep you posted. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.