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  • Thierry Spanjaard

Pay with your face in Moscow metro

A new step has been taken in the increasing role biometrics play in our daily lives with the announcement by Moscow Metro that its "Face Pay" payment system based on facial recognition was now accepted at all of its 241 stations.

Pilots had already been run including face recognition for shopping in China or for paying bus fares in Kazakhstan in 2020, but Moscow is the first large scale rollout of the technology. According to Moscow public transport authorities, the system is implemented in all 241 stations along the 14 lines of the metro, making it the largest rollout of biometric payments in the world; in addition, there are plans to extend the system to buses and streetcars.

To use the service, commuters have to register in the Moscow Metro mobile app with their bank cards and Troika metro pass, and to upload a photo. When they arrive at the turnstile, a camera takes their image and compares it with data extracted from the picture submitted at enrolment phase, before granting access. The fare is then deducted from their registered bank account. As metro Moscow runs on flat fare model, there is no control when getting out of the system.

The Moscow authorities, expect up to 15% of metro passengers will use Face Pay regularly in the next three years, but do not anticipate to make the technology mandatory. The system will keep on accepting other means for payment: the prepaid Troika card, credit cards and smartphone payments. At the same time, to boost its adoption, there may be a discount for travelers accepting to use Face Pay.

Like many systems based on face recognition, there are a couple of questions that need to be ironed out.

We all know that comparing the face of a live person with a single registered image is a fully operational technology, it works daily in millions of ID document controls worldwide. On the contrary, searching an image of a live person in a large database is a lot more difficult and may need some time. Transit authorities say the system has been in test with 15,000 pilot users since December 2020 and consider Face Pay yo be three times faster than existing payment methods. Developers of the system say their face recognition algorithms are so good that they can even work with people wearing masks.

Public transport authorities claim that the images will be “securely encrypted,” only used for fare payment, stored securely in a database “to which only interior ministry staff have access” and will not be forwarded to any third parties.

Technologies used here for mass transit fare payment are generally used for forensic investigations and population control. There are around 200,000 surveillance cameras installed in the Moscow area alone that are interfaced to an AI-based system that allows to identify people. These images have been used to track people breaking the lockdown during the Covid pandemic. Also, privacy advocates say some of the images have been used by the police to arrest those who participated in opposition protests. Privacy rights campaigners fear that the addition of cameras in the metro will just add more images to the surveillance system, that can be used to clamp down on political opponents. Also, the Face Pay database stores in the same place photos of citizens, their identity and their banking details, constituting a honey pot for hackers.

With this deployment, Moscow becomes a test lab for the rest of the world: system performance with a database that contains millions of faces will be monitored by all those who have an interest in biometrics, while political and society issues need to be worked out globally between government authorities and privacy rights advocates.

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