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Transparency lacking in biometric onboarding for facial recognition payments in China: case study

Transparency lacking in biometric onboarding for facial recognition payments in China: case study

While China is making the transition to mobile facial recognition payments at physical stores, a case study by Nielsen Norman Group reveals issues such as first-time users not understanding the technology and payment process felt their privacy was at risk during the onboarding experience at a small test pilot rolled out at two bakery chains.

A touchscreen the size of an iPad Mini manufactured by Ali Pay was installed at checkout at a bakery in Beijing. The device uses the parent company’s facial image database to identify the shopper, completing the payment process within as little as 10 seconds for a returning user.

On the other hand, facial recognition payments in China do not require advanced smartphones, which might not be affordable for all. To make facial recognition payments users need a validated WeChat or Ali Pay account linked to a bank account. The new payment method has been adopted in a number of clothing stores, grocery stores, vending machines, and checkpoints of subway stations in China.

While all participants in the case study were impressed with the fast processing times, four out of five felt the onboarding experience was not secure, they felt suspicious and still picked QR code scanning.

Some of the mistakes noticed were that first-time users did not understand how their face was recognized because it was not properly explained to them that Ali Pay already had access to government ID data from when users registered for the account and used facial recognition, so it was a recognition process and not a registration process. Users were concerned someone would steal their phone number matched to the account and use it to register and steal their money.

Other mistakes include shoppers not being able to choose which card or bank account to use for the payment and not giving their consent to pay without password confirmation.

A better onboarding experience would make users less suspicious and more confident of the technology and payment process. Nielsen Norman Group suggests getting first-time users’ consent, explain why the app already has access to their facial information, make sure users understand the technology and how it works, and include payment amount and method in the confirmation page for users to be informed at all times in the process.

Nielsen Norman Group compared the process to one based on Face ID and Apple Pay, which requires a newer generation smartphone that supports the technology, and users need to have the phone on them to complete the purchase.

China has not so far made much progress in protecting the biometric data collected, used and stored by both government and businesses, according to a report from think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies. While the public appears to be slowly moving away from blindly accepting government surveillance practices, significant changes are not expected in the upcoming future.

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