Facial recognition technology is taking hold in China, while in Europe it's considered a sign of a looming surveillance state. DW's Frank Sieren thinks there might be a happy medium.
With her symmetric face, her dark uniform and her mirrored sunglasses, this young policewoman looks like an agent from the sci-fi franchise "The Matrix." She can see things that others cannot. Her glasses are equipped with a face scanner that can search and identify faces in the crowds at a train station in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou. The glasses are linked to a giant database which enables people to be identified within seconds.
A pilot project in Henan province was considered a success: The authorities say that thanks to the glasses, seven people for whom their was a search warrant were found and arrested and caught a further 35 people who had false identity cards.
The government's argument is that facial recognition technology will boost security and the economy at the same time. No other country has invested in the technology to such an extent. This is also because there is no major debate about data protection in China. Large parts of the population are not interested in the subject and the censors deal with those who are.
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An ideal testing ground
Thus, China is an ideal testing ground for the technology whereby computers create biometric models that are unique for each person. Select companies can access state databases, which are huge in China. There are already 176 million cameras providing huge surveillance of public space, and by 2020 there will be 450 million more. Fingerprinting is also daily practice.
Each Chinese person over 16 has an identification card with biometric data, which can be used as a source for developers and programmers using Deep Learning. This is one of the supreme disciplines of artificial intelligence. It is indispensable for creating good facial recognition software. Algorithms teach themselves what kind of faces exist, how they can be differentiated and what factors, for example light or distorted angles, have to be taken into account to find a clear match.
China would like to be the global leader in the field of artificial intelligence by 2030. So the government is supporting companies such as Megvii, a startup launched in Beijing in 2011. It is the first "unicorn" in the branch - a company that's not older than 10 years but already worth over $1 billion (€813 million).
Not far behind is SenseTime from Hong Kong, a company specialized in video analyses for testing precision in self-driving cars as well as facial recognition, which also rose to "unicorn" status last summer. There's also CloudWalk, which last year received $301 million from the local government in Guangzhou.
Facial recognition technology is not only useful for surveillance, as is often thought in the West. It is a much more secure method of authentication than passwords or PIN numbers.
The China Merchants Bank has introduced 1,000 ATMs where all customers need to do is glance at the camera to withdraw money. Developers say that because the scanner calculates and analyzes facial features, the movement of the mouth and muscles, there can be no fraud.
Facial recognition also makes it easier to go through security in a country where there are masses of people on the move. China Southern Airlines has been testing the use of facial recognition technology in the city of Nanyang. People no longer need boarding cards, their own face suffices to pass through the gate. In future, people might not need passports at all.
The technology could also help personalize advertising even more. If you're looking a bit down, you might receive a message from a suntanning studio offering you a special deal!
As with all new technologies, there are some odd uses, too. In Beijing's Temple of Heaven, a UNESCO World Heritage site, facial scanners have been installed in the public toilets to catch paper thieves. If someone uses more than 60 centimeters' worth of paper within nine minutes, the machine will politely rebuke them.
In Hangzhou, an outlet of the fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken has introduced a biometric paying system. Customers can basically "smile to pay" because their data are linked to the Chinese tech giant Alibaba's online paying system.
Other projects might raise an eyebrow in a country which suffered Mao's Cultural Revolution. During that era, a slogan saying the "masses have sharp eyes" encouraged daily denunciations. At a traffic light in the huge city of Jinan, facial recognition technology is used to record and shame pedestrians who cross the road on red. Photos and videos of the "culprit" appear on public screens. In some cases, employers have been informed of the "crime."
Such initiatives, along with the government's planned "social credit" system which will evaluate citizens according to good and bad deeds, might send a chill down the backs of foreign observers in particular.
As with all new technologies, it remains to be seen what will work in the long term. The government and companies now have to convince the population that it will also benefit from facial recognition. When it comes to fighting crime, many Chinese seem to approve its use.
What's certain is that facial recognition is here to stay – less certain is in what sectors.
Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.