Parallel traders, beware: new facial recognition system installed at Hong Kong-Shenzhen border

Technology will also help to speed up customs checks on border that sees 640,000 crossings every day, authorities say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2018, 10:19am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2018, 11:57am

Chinese authorities have introduced a new system to crack down on “parallel traders” at two border checkpoints between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, in a move that marks the beginning of facial recognition technology being used on the large-scale at the mainland’s border checkpoints with the city.

Parallel traders refers to people who buy tax-free goods in the former British colony and then resell them in the mainland.

According to a message posted by the General Administration of Customs on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, the new system in place at the Shenzhen Bay and Lo Wu checkpoints will also speed up the processing time for people travelling between the two cities.

“Passengers shuttling between Shenzhen and Hong Kong can now just walk through the gates after their travel documents have been verified, as the new facial recognition system will automatically capture their faces,” the message said.

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Everyone who passes through the checkpoint is then checked against a database of faces and travel information, and if there is a suspicion they are a parallel trader the system will send an alert to the customs officials, the statement said.

It did not say what would happen in the event of there being such a match.

An official from Shenzhen customs, who asked to be identified only by his surname Deng, told the South China Morning Post on Monday that the facial recognition system had been installed but was still in the trial phase.

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Meanwhile, James To Kun-sun, a Hong Kong lawyer and lawmaker representing the Democratic Party, said he was concerned about how the images captured by the new system would be used.

“They already have your photo. It’s like you go to countries, say, Japan and they will collect your up-to-date photo,” he said.

“But for certain countries, you trust them to use your information in a more civilised way that complies with international data protection standards. With this case, honestly, I don’t know how they will use it.”

An influx of parallel traders from mainland China has caused tension in Hong Kong. While some people who live close to the border have complained that they have pushed up retail prices, others have argued they are good for the local economy.

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The new system will certainly be a boon for those with legitimate reasons for crossing the border.

While both sides of the checkpoint were already equipped with e-channels, which allow people to pass through using their identity card and a thumb print, on the Shenzhen side visitors were also required to present their ID cards for checking against a database of suspected parallel traders.

The new facial recognition technology removes the need for this second stage.

According to figures published by Shenzhen customs last year, it normally takes about 10 seconds for each person to pass through the checking process, while it said that a total of 640,000 people make the border crossing every day.