Uber introduces face recognition technology in China operations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 April, 2016, 2:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 April, 2016, 2:30am

Uber has introduced facial recognition technology to its operations in mainland China, which the US company claims as a first for the global ride-hailing industry.

In a statement released on Thursday, San Francisco-based Uber said that facial recognition system forms part of its verification process for drivers in the world’s second-largest economy.

“For each and every one of the millions of rides we facilitate everyday in China, we are committed to providing both riders and drivers with the most convenient and secure experience,” said Uber China head of strategy Zhen Liu.

“This new facial recognition feature enhances our already stringent control systems and provides an additional safeguard for drivers and riders.”

This initiative by Uber has come weeks after authorities in Shenzhen announced they found thousands of drivers working for various operators of ride-hailing apps in the city had criminal records, which sparked public concern about the safety provided by these transport services.

Shenzhen’s municipal transport committee summoned executives from Uber, Didi Chuxing, Yidao Yongche, Zuche and -- the mainland’s five top ride-hailing apps operators -- to address the issue.

The committee accused those firms of lax gatekeeping, saying 1,425 of their registered drivers had records of drug abuse. Another 1,661 had criminal records for other offences, while at least one driver was a registered psychiatric patient with a history of violent behaviour in public.

The first phase in the nationwide roll-out of Uber’s facial recognition system, which started early March, uses sophisticated algorithms to match the driver partners’ profile pictures against

their official identification cards.

Drivers applying to use Uber’s platform will be asked to use an in-app function on their mobile Uber app to perform some simple head gestures, such as nods and shakes, the company said.

“Facial recognition technology provides the same or higher level of security compared to password encryption, fingerprint scanning, or voice ID recognition, but is much easier for drivers to use,” Jack Yang, Uber’s product manager for the facial recognition project, said.

“Once they’re registered on our system, when drivers need to be verified they simply can open the app and follow a few simple onscreen instructions such as turning their head or blinking.”

Yang pointed out that “almost every phone is equipped with a camera, which means that

anyone can use this system”.

Uber is currently beta-testing the second phase of this facial recognition system roll-out.

The company said phase-two, which is planned for a mid-May launch, will require drivers to conduct a real-time identify verification test by performing a series of simple head gestures in front of the camera, which it said would enable more sophisticated and secure identity verification.

Zhen said Uber’s safety features, including its two-way anonymous ratings system, “continues to set the standard for safety and security in China’s ridesharing industry”.

“Facial recognition technology provides the same or higher level of security compared to password encryption, fingerprint scanning, or voice ID recognition, but is much easier for drivers to use”
Jack Yang, Uber product manager for the facial recognition project

No details were provided by Uber on when the facial recognition system will be introduced in other markets around the world.

Uber, which is backed by Chinese online search giant Baidu, reportedly injected fresh funds into its China unit in January, which valued this operation at around US$7 billion.

Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, told Canadian technology news site Betakit in January that the company was “losing over US$1 billion a year in China”.

According to data from the China Internet Network Information Center, Didi holds an 87.2 per cent share of the mainland’s private-car hailing market.