China’s mobile payment infrastructure is one of the most advanced in the world, but the new systems — which require only face recognition — being rolled out nationwide could make even QR codes seem old-fashioned.
Customers simply make a purchase by posing in front of point-of-sale (POS) machines equipped with cameras, after linking an image of their face to a digital payment system or bank account.
“I don’t even have to bring a mobile phone with me, I can go out and do shopping without taking anything,” says Bo Hu, chief information officer of Wedome bakery, which uses facial payment machines across hundreds of stores.
“This was not possible either at the earliest stage of mobile payment — only after the birth of facial recognition technology can we complete the payment without anything else,” he explains.
The software is already widely used, often to monitor citizens — it has been credited with nabbing jaywalkers and catching criminals.
But authorities have come under fire for using it to crack down and monitor dissent, particularly in China’s surveillance-heavy region of Xinjiang.
“There’s a big risk… that the state could use this data for their own purposes, such as surveillance, monitoring, the tracking of political dissidents, social and information control, ethnic profiling, as in the case with Uighurs in Xinjiang, and even predictive policing,” says Adam Ni, China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney.
“This is certainly one of the more contentious aspects of the gathering of facial recognition data and the usage of them.”
Despite the concerns over data security and privacy, consumers seem unperturbed as facial recognition payment hits the high streets.
Alipay — the financial arm of ecommerce giant Alibaba — has been leading the charge in China with devices already in 100 cities.
The firm is predicting enormous growth in the sector and recently launched an upgrade of its “Smile-to-Pay” system, using a machine roughly the size of an iPad.