Facial recognition: The ugly face of the future
Your face is giving you away: China uses biometrics to keep its citizens in check, and little escapes the authorities
Our faces have become the pass code to our mobile information, thanks to new-generation smartphones. A mere glance in the direction of a premier phone will cause the screen to blink to life.
It feels somewhat futuristic. In China, however, this use of biometric data is child’s play.
The country, known for its complete power over its 1.4bn subjects, uses that body count as an excuse to govern them through any means it deems fit. And these days it chooses to do so through its subjects’ faces.
Making use of photos taken for people’s government ID cards, the Chinese government is building a database that is able to identify any face in a crowd nationwide within just three seconds. It has already fed this biometric identification into tech throughout the country.
Jaywalkers, for example, are shamed by having their face and name displayed in public areas. A public park combated toilet paper theft by locking the supplies behind a dispenser powered by facial recognition software.
The crackdown on what the government has deemed "public toilet paper mismanagement" is part of a bigger plan that states "keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is awful".
It is this ethos that is at the centre of China’s bid in 2014 to create a "social credit system". Depending on their behaviour, citizens gain and lose "credits". The mandatory system was supposed to be implemented only by 2020, but it has already begun to have an impact on people’s lives, and China is using biometrics to do it.
How does it work?
The Chinese government has created real-life naughty-and-nice lists based on social credit scores. If the biometric scan in one of the country’s many surveillance cameras catches you doing something untoward — such as smoking in a nonsmoking zone — you may find yourself shamed on the very public social blacklist. But the government has taken this further. You could now be banned from taking flights, lose your job, be deemed undesirable on popular dating sites and have your children barred from attending good schools.
Classrooms are also testing biometrics to track pupils’ attention levels. What was supposed to be a system to catch cheaters has now become a way to scan faces with a camera placed above the blackboard and a means to monitor pupils’ learning habits. The system records whether children feel neutral, happy, sad, disappointed, angry, scared or surprised. And naturally, that information is also used to assess how well teachers are doing their jobs — and what exactly they are doing with the children.
After a case of sexual abuse at a kindergarten last year, government regulation was amended to enforce surveillance at Chinese preschools.
The police themselves make use of biometrics through new government-regulated glasses that scan faces in a crowd to locate law breakers. The technology will tell them whether a person has outstanding traffic fines or is on the run from law enforcers.
Though the US government is known to spy on its residents in a not-so-secret fashion and the UK is littered with surveillance cameras, it is hard to believe that China’s Big Brother-like invasion of privacy will make its way to the West any time soon.
It is also doubtful that our own government would get it together long enough to attempt such a system — the queues it would create at the department of home affairs offices alone would be cause for crisis management.
But should countries limit biometrics to security and surveillance? There are some Chinese uses of biometrics that could be said to make sense.
It is becoming common practice in China to pay for purchases with a facial scan. This will also mean that when you place an order at your local KFC, it will provide menu suggestions based on what you previously ordered.
Having one’s face act as a credit card could be beneficial locally, considering that according to the SA Banking Risk Information Centre, lost or stolen credit card fraud rose by 44.5% last year.
Credit card-related fraud rose by 7.4% and is still the leading contributor to gross fraud loss in the country.
Could greater use of facial recognition software change that reality?