This technology is already used in China to eat at KFC fast food restaurants, to find fugitives in the crowd, to locate people who cross the street outside of crosswalks or to unlock a computer. It is also used on a large scale in the Xinjiang region, where the population, mostly Muslim, is under intense surveillance following a series of attacks.
To pay at a store, consumers have to provide a picture of their face to their bank account or to a mobile payment system. Once in the store they just have to present themselves to a special scanner.
Alipay, the Chinese mobile payment leader, leads this market with machines installed in one hundred cities in the country.
The company sees enormous growth potential and expects to invest about 3 billion yuan (380 million euros) in three years to improve its technology, called “Smile-to-Pay”. Tencent, its competitor, which manages the WeChat messaging application, with 600 million users, presented in August a new payment terminal called Frog Pro.
"The payment for facial recognition has the potential to generalize thanks to the impulse of the main actors of mobile payment," said Mengmeng Zhang, an analyst at the Hong Kong Counterpoint consultancy. "Alipay spends billions to spread this technology by subsidizing sellers and giving financial rewards to consumers who use it," he added.
SUPER WITHOUT BOXES. In Tianjin, a large city 120 kilometers southeast of Beijing, the IFuree supermarket, which operates without cashiers, also proposes facial recognition. A 3D camera scans the faces of people entering the store. At the time of payment, customers scan their items themselves and then scan their face again. The price is immediately deducted from your bank account.
"It's practical because you can buy things very quickly," says Zhang Liming, a senior citizen. "In traditional supermarkets you have to stand in line, it's not very nice," he adds.
In the Wedome bakery chain, about 300 stores have facial recognition terminals, explains Bo Hu, and plans to install 400 more.
But new payment technology is also a way for businesses to collect more personal data.
"This trend in retailing is motivated by two things, avoiding theft and obtaining information on consumer preferences," says Jeffrey Ding, a researcher at the University of Oxford.
Facial recognition is part of a broader national campaign to make China a leader in high technology.
For supporters of this technology, on the contrary, there is nothing to fear.