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  • Thierry Spanjaard

Your face gets you moving

Biometrics are already a reality when it comes to authentication of a single user: most of us use biometrics to unlock our smartphones. In this case, a candidate fingerprint or face is compared to the one in reference in the smartphone to authenticate the legitimate user.

Payment of mass transit systems by face recognition is a totally different situation: a candidate face has to be recognized in a database of millions, if not tens of millions of faces. And as everything in mass transit, time is of the essence. Typically, getting passengers through a fare gate requires each transaction to be processed in 200 to 300 milliseconds.

An alternative has been found by Beijing Railways, in anticipation of the massive transportation needs linked with Chinese New Year celebrations: face recognition is used at ticketing machines that issue regular tickets. These tickets are later checked in a conventional manner at the gate.

At the same time, Beijing and Shanghai are piloting the use of facial recognition at the fare gate, with a goal of increasing the throughput of the system. Shanghai Metro is planning to install Alibaba-developed voice recognition technology in ticket machines in all stations, as well as facial recognition system at the entrance of stations to verify the identities of commuters.

Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, has become the first to roll out the technology on a wide scale. According to the Henan Daily, nearly 200,000 commuters in Zhengzhou have elected to authorize face-scan payments using a local metro service app.

Mass transit payments using facial recognition are not only occurring in China. In Japan, the Osaka Metro started testing an automated ticket gate featuring facial recognition, with a goal of generalizing the system ahead of the 2025 World Expo in Osaka. Also, JR East, the largest passenger railway company in Japan, is considering the introduction of "walkthrough" ticket gates at stations that will enable passengers to access gates via a specialized smartphone application combined with facial recognition.

However, facial recognition in China is part of the government’s Social Credit System that consists in establishing a score for each individual based on his/her social conduct. Now, Beijing Metro is considering installing cameras at all its subway stations, not only to help processing fare payments quicker but also to monitor and classify passengers into “safety” categories, according to reports by official news agency Xinhua. In this project, cameras will allow to sort mass transit passengers into different categories based on their score, leading the station staff to conduct different security check procedures. According to the mass transit operator, this system is designed to speed up the security checking process at metro stations.

Mass surveillance technology leads local citizen groups to express their concerns on WeChat: “The government has collected a lot of personal data already, including what websites you have browsed, what news and videos you have watched, what goods you have purchased, who you chatted with on WeChat, your likes and dislikes. (…) We don’t know how they will use our data and how they will control our lives.” Lao Dongyan, a professor at Tsinghua University Law School, goes on: “Who gives the transportation department [Beijing metro company] the right to classify passengers? According to what law are they allowed to do this? Which kind of standard will they use to sort passengers?” as reported by the Epoch Times.

Mass transit payment is only a part of a global adoption of facial recognition based payments. About 118 million Chinese have signed up for facial recognition payments in 2019 compared to 61 million in 2018, according to a report issued last month by iiMedia Research, quoted by the South China Morning Post. By 2022, the research consultancy expects the number of users to exceed 760 million, about half of the country’s population.

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