China tech firms bypassing privacy concerns to apply facial recognition

China’s technology firms are rushing to apply the commercial use of facial recognition technology, bypassing the same privacy concerns that have slowed the roll out of the technology in Western markets, according to a report by The Financial Times.

People in China are arguably less concerned about privacy rights violation than in Western countries as they are accustomed to having their faces scanned to conduct daily tasks, such as making payments to access residential blocks, student dormitories and hotels.

In addition, Chinese citizens are required to swipe their ID cards into chip readers to activate a mobile phone account, purchase a train ticket or check into a hotel.

Ant Financial, the online payments division of ecommerce group Alibaba, allows users to take a selfie to access their online wallets, while China Construction Bank offers a similar service for customers at ATMs.

Car-hailing service Didi Chuxing is using the technology to verify drivers’ identities, while search engine Baidu has developed facial recognition-enabled entry to access its offices and paid events.

In December, Beijing-based Megvii, which develops facial recognition software Face++, raised $100 million in its third large fundraising round. The company has licensed Face++ to Chinese ridesharing company Didi and Ant Financial.

“You need to wait a long time to get any service,” said Xie Yinan, spokesman for Face++. “So we started our facial recognition service for the fintech sector.” The company is no longer focusing on the retail segment.

Although the core AI research behind facial recognition in the country is comparable to that in Europe and the US, China has taken a significantly different approach to applying it commercially.

“Google isn’t pursuing facial recognition as much because it has higher and longer-term aspirations, and facial recognition is actually very achievable,” said Leng Biao, a specialist in body recognition technology at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “But China’s big companies are more focused on profit in the immediate future. They see [facial recognition] as the fastest, best way of using AI to make a difference.”

Facial recognition startups are driven to expand the use of their technology as consistent feedback from users helps them to improve their technology.

“As real-life business applications increase in China, more and more data gets fed back into our systems to improve our deep learning,” said Xie.

Meanwhile, China’s massive population and lenient privacy laws have made enormous amounts of data available to facial recognition companies at a low cost.

“China doesn’t regulate the collection of people’s photos, so it’s easier to collect data here than in the US,” said Leng. “In the early days, you could buy a photo of someone’s face for Rmb5 [less than a dollar].”

The very notion of privacy rights has only emerged in recent years among the people of China.

“Until recently, China had a long history of seeing privacy as a negative concept,” said Xun Yang, technology lawyer at Simmons & Simmons in Shanghai. “The first law explicitly prohibiting the misuse of personal information came out in 2009.”

Earlier this year we reported that China is boosting growth of its artificial intelligence sector over the next three years through a specific innovation program.

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