Shoppers in China are increasingly purchasing goods with just a turn of their heads as the country embraces facial payment technology.
In a country where mobile payment is already one of the most advanced in the world, customers can make a purchase simply 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. But authorities have come under fire for using it to crack down and monitor dissent, particularly in the 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, many consumers seem unperturbed by facial recognition payment in the high street.
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.
Alipay will spend three billion yuan ($420m) over three years on implementing the technology.
Tencent, which runs the WeChat app with 600 million users, unveiled its new facial payment machine called “Frog Pro” in August, while a growing number of start-ups are trying to tap into the burgeoning industry.
“(Facial payment) certainly has the potential to become popular with the wide push from major mobile payment players,” says Mengmeng Zhang, an analyst at Counterpoint.
“Alipay is spending (billions) to popularise facial payment technology through giving out subsidies for vendors and rewards for consumers that use facial payment,” she adds.
At the IFuree self-service supermarket in Tianjin, a 3D camera scans the faces of those entering the store – measuring width, height and depth of the faces – then another quick scan again at check-out.
“It’s convenient because you can buy things very quickly,” says retiree Zhang Liming after using facial payment for her groceries.
“It’s different from the payment in the traditional supermarket, in which you have to wait in the checkout line and it’s very troublesome,” she argues.
Bo Hu says 300 of his bakeries have facial payment systems, and he plans to introduce them in 400 more.
He believes it makes the checkout process more efficient, but concedes the numbers using the new technology are still modest.
Supporters of the technology wave aside privacy concerns.
“The facial recognition technology helps to protect our privacy,” explains IFuree engineer Li Dongliang.
“In the traditional way, it’s very dangerous to enter the password if someone stands beside you. Now we can complete the payment with our faces, which helps us secure our account,” he insists.
But for many consumers, it is vanity rather than privacy that puts them off using such systems.
A poll by news portal Sina Technology found that over 60% of respondents said scanning their faces for payments made them feel “ugly”.
In response Alipay pledged to introduce “beautifying filters” into all the Alipay cameras.