These Asia-Pacific countries are turning on facial recognition technology
DATA AND PRIVACY are this month’s most prominent buzz words, spurred by news of Facebook’s massive data leak, perhaps the social media platform’s biggest scandal to date.
Consumers are becoming more conscious about sharing their information, as data integrity and security has become a growing concern. However, with the advent of countries teching up with facial recognition, even travelers have to start seriously considering what kind of information they could be unwittingly sharing with countries, people and places.
But first, let’s take a look at what facial recognition is.
Simply put, it’s a system capable of identifying or verifying a person from a digital image or a video frame. It works by comparing selected facial features with faces within a database.
The technology is used in security systems and can be compared to other biometrics such as fingerprint or iris recognition systems. In recent times, it has been picked up and used as a commercial identification and marketing tool.
Most people have a smartphone camera capable of identifying features to perform activities such as unlocking said smartphone or making payments.
Russian cosmopolitan capital Moscow has an enormous network of CCTV cameras. Over 160,000, to be precise. In September 2017, the city flipped the facial recognition system switch and now, those cameras are hooked up.
This allows the authorities to track everyone, from the everyday pedestrian to trash collectors and even criminals. Of course, this stoked fears of constant surveillance.
TechCrunch cited Moscow’s Department of Information Technologies CIO Artem Ermolaev as saying that only two to four thousand cameras can be actively monitored at once, and five full days of video are kept from the city’s CCTV network at all times.
In that same vein, Singapore is also planning to turn on facial recognition technology for over 100,000 lampposts to help authorities pick out and recognize faces in crowds across the country.
Dubbed “Lamppost-as-a-Platform,” the project is part of Singapore’s “Smart Nation” plan to use cutting-edge technology to improve people’s lives.
“The government said the system would allow it to ‘perform crowd analytics’ and support anti-terror operations,” Reuters wrote.
This, of course, raised privacy fears among security experts and rights groups, as well as Singaporeans.
“At which point will it be deemed intrusive and unethical?” questioned 35-year-old Singaporean Danny Gan on Facebook.
The pilot project is scheduled to begin next year.
This February, Malaysian low-cost airline AirAsia rolled out the Fast Airport Clearance Experience System (Faces), which utilizes facial recognition technology to allow passengers to board their flights faster.
AirAsia claimed Faces has an 80 percent identification success rate and will reduce the boarding process to between nine and 10 minutes, from 11 to 13 minutes on an average procedure.
The new feature was unveiled at Senai International Airport in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, the first Malaysian airport to use a facial recognition system. At that time, there were debates about how the data would be handled, as the system was launched amidst reports about data breaches in the country.
Moreover, since the system is still in its infancy stage in Malaysia, first-time and non-frequent foreign visitors to Senai International Airport could have some reservations about having their personal information stored.
Not to be outdone, China later announced that over 60 of its airports had been equipped with facial recognition technology. Cameras at 557 security channels capture images of faces and scan their passports or ID cards to verify their identity.
And it’s not just the Chinese airports that are speeding ahead with usage of the technology.
“For instance, in multiple Chinese cities, facial recognition is being used by traffic management authorities to catch and publicly shame jaywalkers. In China’s Wuhan railway station, 32 facial recognition devices have been installed to speed up the process of checking tickets,” wrote Tech Wire Asia.
“And at Beijing Normal University, they have installed a facial recognition security system in the campus dorms, identifying students before allowing them access.”
It sounds like a creepy, Big Brother-style mass surveillance, but it has its strengths.
For example, on April 7, the Chinese police arrested a 31-year-old fugitive in southeast China after facial recognition technology helped identify him in a crowd of about 60,000 people at Cantopop star Jacky Cheung’s concert.
China has even rolled out facial recognition technology for its public toilets, as part of a nationwide campaign to improve the quality of public conveniences.
According to Rednet.cn, each person scanning their face will receive 40cm of toilet paper from a dispenser. The aim is to stop users from taking too much and crack down on toilet paper theft.
What does it mean for travelers?
Going to a foreign country requires you to learn up not only its language and customs but also the kinds of technology they use, starting with e-payment systems or apps they use such as Alipay or WeChat Pay in China, Paytm in India, KakaoPay in South Korea, etc.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Upon stamping your passport or scanning your details at the immigration counter, the country will already have a record of your arrival and later, departure. When you make purchases with a country-specific e-payment system, they’re likely able to track your spending and your whereabouts.
The deployment of facial recognition technology outside of personal use or for verification purposes raises some questions and concerns, particularly for first-time travelers to a destination.
Do travelers want to be tracked every step of the way? Who has custody of the data? What will it be used for? Will it be shared without consent? How long will it remain in the system?
In the near future (read: very, very near future), studying ahead in preparation for travel will be less about “slurping your ramen louder in Japan to show appreciation”, learning how to use chopsticks via a YouTube tutorial, or Googling “How do I say thank you in..” and more about understanding what kind of information the country will store about you.