Artificial Intelligence
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Artificial intelligence

While iPhone X tests Face ID, facial authentication is already old hat in China

Facial recognition and authentication has been installed in bank ATMs since 2015, and are being tested for everything from retailing at KFC outlets to even boarding flights in airports.

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 September, 2017, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 September, 2017, 11:40pm

Fans and customers of Apple’s iconic smartphone awoke this week to the promise of unlocking their iPhones simply by scanning their faces through the Face ID function, a breakthrough that the maker is only reserving for its premium US$1,000 iPhone X model.

But facial identification is old hat, at least for customers of China Merchants Bank and the Agricultural Bank of China.

Merchants Bank has enabled 1,000 of its automatic teller machines (ATMs) in 106 Chinese cities since 2015 to dispense cash by scanning their customers’ faces. Agricultural Bank followed in January, installing a similar capability on 470 ATMs in 16 selected branches in cities and provinces such as Beijing, Shanghai, Anhui and Zhejiang provinces. Customers no longer need to bring their bank cards, but just look into a camera where a pre-scanned photograph can be matched with the image scanned through facial recognition software for verification.

“The service effectively trims the risk of counterfeited cards, avoids such incidents as cards getting stuck in ATMs and improves clients’ experience,” the bank said in response to queries by the South China Morning Post. “The service also paves the way for new businesses such as online account openings.”

Once the feature of science fiction, facial recognition and verification is rapidly becoming part of daily life in China, even while the rest of the world has taken a slower approach for concern over privacy.

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Chinese authorities have used the technology to identify law breakers and jaywalkers, while companies have made “face swiping” part of their retailing and services, from paying for ice cream at KFC outlets to boarding flights.

Banking, where security strikes a fine balance with convenience and ease of use, is where technologists see the best potential application of facial recognition.

“The security of their customers’ accounts is critical for any bank, so financial institutions have strict requirements on using real names for registration, and they must verify the identity of their users every single time,” said Xie Yinan, spokesman for Megvii-owned Face++, a Beijing start-up that offers facial recognition technologies to 400 finance companies, including Ant Financial. “Facial recognition is cut out for the job.”

By tapping into the technology, Ant Financial, which operates China’s largest mobile payment tool Alipay, already allows its 450 million active users to access their digital accounts by scanning their faces. Alibaba owns South China Morning Post.

“Facial recognition helps us go further in the pursuit of offering more personalised services,” in line with the trend of getting all businesses to go mobile, said Zhu Sihua, retail banking deputy general manager at Merchants Bank’s Shanghai branch. “Traditional banks like us can better integrate online and offline resources such as ATMs and our mobile network.”

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For the moment, facial recognition works as a supplementary feature to existing means of authentication for regulatory, safety and acceptance reasons.

To trim fraud, the Agricultural Bank caps the daily withdrawal limit of facial authentication functions at 3,000 yuan, a fraction of the 20,000 yuan limit for withdrawals via bank cards.

Foreign banks in China are also catching on. HSBC was the first foreign bank in China to allow facial recognition for money transfers via online banking, using it replace the old pocket authentication device, although a random dynamic verification code is still required for daily transactions capped at 50,000 yuan (US$7,634). The service began in September.

“Chinese consumers are the most positive in embracing new technology,” said Richard Li, head of HSBC China’s retail banking and wealth management.

For now, facial verification remains a novelty that’s kept to selected locations among a small group of banks that are more eager to get the start on their competitors.

David Liang, a start-up owner in Shenzhen and a Merchants Bank customer, said most ATMs in the city aren’t equipped with the new feature.

It remains to be seen whether the feature will expand to become the norm.

The safety and security of bank accounts is the main hurdle that prevents facial authentication from replacing passwords, said Hu Jie, an affiliated professor at the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance in Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

“If facial recognition proves to be safe and reliable, it can become mainstream in the future,” he said.