China's Facial Recognition Payments: Are They Safe?

Although China aims to have the world's largest facial recognition database, some experts are wary of the technology when it comes to payment processing.

18.07.2019 | by Reve Fisher
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China’s tech scene has been developing at a rapid pace over the past several years. As one of the world’s leaders in artificial intelligence and facial recognition, China has also rolled out facial recognition payments in several businesses and industries. However, an official at China’s central bank is concerned about the potential privacy risks that such technology may exhibit over time. 

Since 2015, The Chinese Ministry of Public Security has been attempting to create the world’s largest facial recognition database, as reported by Analytics India Magazine. Facial recognition has been used in the Shenzhen metro system, ride-sharing network Didi, Baidu, Alipay, WeChat Pay, UnionPay and even Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants throughout the country.

However, Li Wei, director of the technology department of the People’s Bank of China, believes that consumers are sacrificing privacy for convenience by using this technology as a payment process—a trade-off that may have disastrous results over time.

“Using personal privacy for a little convenience is not worth the effort,” he said at a FinTech summit in Beijing. “Personal privacy and information protection work is not done well. Over time, it may cause digital panic, technical concerns, and may even ruin the healthy development of financial technology.”

Li said that faces are sensitive personal information that can be identified from a distance, compared to a bank card that’s placed inside one’s wallet or pocket. If someone’s face is “stolen” or “leaked,” particularly as it cannot be hidden in the same way that a bank card or even fingerprints can be, it could have adverse consequences.

Huang Zhen, a professor at the Central University of Finance and Economics, told the People’s Daily that users’ personal information is over-collected while using facial recognition payments, that privacy and infringement risks are present “as long as a face can be associated with personal authentication and other information.”

“Be sure to pay close attention to this risk,” he warned.

Li also expressed the dangers that may come from forcing people to input their phone numbers as a g. way to verify the facial recognition process. However, according to some industry experts, this form of “combined verification” proves the person’s willingness to pay, removes concerns about the user’s facial data being stolen and increases efficiency, payment security and payment speed.

Although the risks associated with facial recognition usually lie on the business side, problems can also happen on the user’s end. Earlier this year, a WeChat user in Zhejiang lost more over 10,000 yuan ($1,450) after his roommates pointed his phone to his face while he was sleeping.

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