Beijing subway to install facial recognition as fears grow of China surveillance powers

John Cowley
Human rights groups fear that authorities are using 'big data' on individuals to crack down on dissent - Bloomberg

Beijing’s underground system is planning to introduce 'bio-identification' technology including facial recognition in what it says is an effort to streamline passenger flow through its stations.

Beijing Subway, the operator for most stations in the city told state-controlled newspaper China Daily that facial recognition cameras will be installed  alongside palm scanning systems to increase efficiency.

However, the move is likely to alarm rights groups who have been tracking the rise of facial recognition tools in China that they fear are being used to consolidate state surveillance powers.

The network of facial scanners in stations across Beijing would be able to distinguish between individual passengers’ facial features and then track them through the capital city’s transport network. Passengers who attempt to board the metro without paying would be recognised and recorded as soon as they entered the station.

Also included in the plans are palm scanners that would replace the need for tickets. Passengers would have their personal information recorded to their palm-prints and be able to top-up their credit before passing through ticket gates.

Facial recognition in China timeline

In Shanghai a palm scanning system is already in place for passengers that are exempt from ticket fees like revolutionary veterans and disabled policemen.  

Zhuang Huabing, head of enterprise development for Beijing Subway, told China Daily that the technologies would be rolled out later in the year.

Facial recognition is becoming increasingly popular in China after the government started ploughing funds into AI projects at universities and private companies.

Facial recognition cameras have been deployed at train stations and even pop concerts by police searching for fugitives.  A school in Eastern China recently began monitoring student participation in class using facial recognition technology. Nicknamed "smart eye" the technology identifies different facial expressions from students and if someone seems distracted, it then informs the teacher.

The implementation of facial and bio-recognition technology raises fears of further erosion of privacy and state sponsored spying on private individuals, in a country where the state already monitors citizens through mobile apps and the internet.

Human rights groups fear that authorities are using the huge amounts of information it collates on individuals, or 'big data', along with surveillance to keep track of citizens and crack down on dissent.