SHARON LI explores applications of facial recognition technology in commerce and public facilities in China.

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In October 2019, the Trump administration added 28 additional Chinese organizations to its “Entity List,” effectively banning them from trading with US companies without government approval. Among these organizations were video surveillance companies Hikvision and Dahua, which the Commerce Department alleges are “implicated in China’s campaign targeting Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in the autonomous region of Xinjiang.” While the use of Chinese facial recognition technology for government-led surveillance projects in “more than 150 countries and regions globally” has featured prominently in media, facial recognition is also being utilized for non-surveillance purposes. The technology is beginning to carve out a practical role in Chinese citizens’ everyday life, and can be observed everywhere from restaurants to public bathrooms. Although the use of facial recognition is typically discussed in the context of surveillance, security, and China’s nascent social credit system, this piece opts to focus on the seemingly innocuous ways in which facial recognition has become embedded in Chinese society.

Some uses of facial recognition are already familiar to the general public, such as Alipay’s “Smile-to-Pay” system whereby facial recognition technology is used to make payments. As of September 2019, Alipay has already rolled out the devices in 100 cities and plans to spend $420 million over three years to fully implement the technology. The
“Smile-to-Pay” system was launched as a trial at a number of KFC restaurants late in 2017 and quickly gained popularity, but since then, Alipay has also begun to roll out more ambitious pilots. One of these projects involves using facial recognition and artificial intelligence to predict customers’ preferred order based on their perceived age, mood, and gender. Competitors like Tencent, which owns WeChat, have unveiled their own facial payment systems in order to enter the growing market. But while facial recognition systems such as Alipay’s are said to operate only on an opt-in basis, recent reports show that anyone who verifies their Alipay account using a personal photo can subsequently be recognized by their face during the payment process, even if they opted out of facial recognition payments. In other words, verifying an account with a photo means the user is permanently opting into facial recognition, with no way to opt out.

While the political implications of this technology are clear—or at least more frequently discussed—questions of vanity and social perception have also cropped up. One poll by Sina Technology reported that more than 60% of respondents surveyed on potential usage of facial recognition payments replied that the scanning process made them feel “ugly”. In response, Alipay announced via Weibo that they planned to roll out beautifying filters in the payment system. While adapting to China’s beauty-filter culture seems innocuous, it is also indicative of the way in which facial recognition payments are further becoming normalized. As these systems become normalized, debates over the ethical implications of having immense amounts of commercial and biometric data stored with each purchase are in danger of fading from public consciousness.

This stands in sharp contrast with the widespread suspicion directed towards facial recognition in the US, where privacy concerns are raised in response to any corporate use of facial recognition, even to unlock phones. As such, stores that use facial recognition cameras typically use them for security purposes rather than authentication. Popular retailer store Target tested facial recognition software in a small number of stores, but the test has since been concluded and has not rolled out to other stores. Similarly, Walmart scrapped their own facial recognition software that was meant to detect customers’ mood and satisfaction levels.

Commerce is only one of many avenues China is exploring with its facial recognition technology. Public safety has been a commonly discussed use of facial recognition in China—specifically, to catch jaywalkers and petty thieves on busy city streets—however, as the technology becomes more developed, it has also become more pervasive. In the past two years, the government has tested facial recognition toilet paper dispensers to combat toilet paper theft, and as of 2017, 70,000 such dispensers were built and installed in tourist sites across China. The machine scans the user’s face for three seconds then dispenses an allotted number of squares of toilet paper, and for the next nine minutes, the user cannot access any more toilet paper.

Even without considering ethical implications, the true cost-savings such a measure affords are still in question.  The dispensers have been most commonly spotted in areas with heavy foot traffic, such as tourist sites and amusement parks. Employees of the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing say that such machines cost about $720 each. And while this number is high, it likely does not include the cost of maintenance, data storage or cloud space, and other reoccurring costs. If we look at average costs of industrial size rolls of toilet paper in China, we get a price of around 11 yuan per roll—or $1.00 if we consider the cost-savings of buying in bulk. Assuming each bathroom goes through five industrial rolls of toilet paper per day due to theft, and that installing facial recognition dispensers reduces toilet paper attrition to one roll per day, it would take over a year for the cost saving measures of each machine to equal the initial expenditure.

However, this isn’t to say that theft in public bathrooms doesn’t have significant monetary costs. The People’s Park in Chengdu started an initiative to provide free toilet paper for visitors and later had to roll back the program. One park manager states that “light-fingered visitors” can cost the park more than $14,500 per year. Lei Zhenshan, a marketing director of the Shenzhen-based device manufacturer, says users’ images are automatically deleted after nine minutes, meaning there is no risk towards privacy. However, the entire issue still begs the question whether the technology should combat the theft even if it has the ability to.

Firstly, we cannot know for sure whether such data is truly being deleted. Furthermore, while facial recognition dispensers seem to be the most popular, other facilities are utilizing WeChat scanning dispensers. Specifically, a user scans a QR code using WeChat to receive toilet paper. In this latter case, one would be hard pressed to argue that WeChat, an app many agree offers “no hope in terms of privacy,” does not store such data. Secondly, even in the case we could safely assume no data was being stored, the existence of facial recognition in public bathrooms is just another indication that the technology becoming more normalized—and not just in terms of national security, but in citizens’ everyday interactions with the world.

Ultimately, as Quartz states, some of the “uses for facial recognition in China straddle the line between innovative and invasive.” And Chinese citizens are not blind to this reality either. Some citizens have taken to Weibo to express their anger over being “supervised” and “monitored” everywhere they go, from restaurants to bathrooms. Yet, given the embrace of facial recognition technology by the country’s largest corporations, Chinese citizens may have no choice in the matter.