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I Spy: Beijing Developing Biometric Technology to Identify 1.3B Faces

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Facial recognition - Sputnik International
The Chinese Ministry of Public Security has partnered with a Shanghai-based security company on a project to accurately detect the identities of the nation’s 1.3 billion citizens with facial recognition software, the South China Morning Post reports.

Ivision, the contractor winner, actually won rights to work on the project in 2016 but only confirmed the news to SCMP this week. A spokesperson for the company refused to tell the Post more details about the project's progress, which is confidential. Beyond confirming that the firm had won the contract, a company spokesman said "we have no information for public disclosure."

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Face-scanning technology is becoming more viable in practical applications by the day, but the jury is still out on precisely what impact the technology will have on societies around the world.

Apple's iPhone X will reportedly take advantage of 3D sensors and infrared tech on the device's front-facing camera to allow users to log in without entering a password. One implication is that as long as the phone is on, so too will the phone's face-scanning technology be, which sparks concern among privacy advocates.

"Mistakes and misidentifications are unavoidable" for the technology, UK privacy lawyer Clare Garvie wrote in September. There could be undesirable consequences: as prisoners have gone to jail for decades for crimes they never committed as a result of flawed DNA testing that once seemed to be an infallible tool in forensic investigations, there is a risk of misidentifying the wrong person as a criminal with facial recognition software.

Law enforcement is precisely the domain where Beijing hopes to apply the technology, according to the SCMP, especially for "police suspects" and "people of interest to the government." The goal of the program is to identify any one of the 1.3 billion Chinese citizens within a mere three seconds, the report says.

A researcher with the China-based Institute of Computing Technology quipped, "among 1.3 billion people, some totally unrelated people have faces so alike even their parents cannot tell them apart." In such a large population, having a one-in-a-million face means 1,300 people who look just like you.

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Some of the technology’s features seem to offer conveniences, including: allowing students to enter university halls by smiling or blinking at a camera; payments for meals; and even boarding a plane without an ID or boarding pass, according to SCMP, but the risks continue to pile up all around the technology's periphery.

Beyond privacy and misidentification risks, there is the potential for unsettling uses of the technology in paying for meals. The report says that in certain unspecified restaurants, "customers with 'beautiful' characteristics — such as symmetrical features " receive better scores, "and those that get better scores will get cheaper meals," the Post wrote.

In other words, you can pay without taking out a wallet under the idyllic deployment of the technology, but the tradeoff could be paying more for food because a software application deems you ugly.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that KFC would offer discounts to customers based on their looks. The company does not use facial recognition algorithms for price discrimination. All customers pay the same standard prices for menu items. KFC has, however, implemented facial recognition as a novel way for customers to pay for meals at a KFC location in Hangzhou, China. The story has been corrected at the request of Brunswick Group.

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