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China tech

Coronavirus gives China more reason to employ biometric tech

Startups rush to develop new technologies despite Western concerns

A growing number of startups are making their forays into biometric identification and are poised to export their technologies to Southeast Asia and beyond.   © Reuters

GUANGZHOU -- Biometric identification, already rapidly adopted in everyday life in China, is now being deployed in the battle against the coronavirus outbreak.

In Guangzhou, the commercial and industrial hub of southern China, tablets have recently been installed by the driver's seat in public buses. Passengers are expected to put their foreheads close to the tablet so that their temperatures and photos can be taken.

Already, bus drivers across China have been manually checking the temperatures of passengers before they board but Guangzhou is a pioneer in the deployment of more sophisticated technology, according to Guangzhou Public Transportation Group, the city's public bus operator.

The photos taken by the tablets can then be used in contact-tracing if a passenger is subsequently found to be ill with coronavirus. 

Guangzhou Public Transportation claims the data will not be used for any other purpose, but passengers have little choice anyway if they want to get on a bus in Guangzhou.

Such technology have little hope of taking off in the U.S. and Europe, though, where aversion to surveillance is much broader and more visceral.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce added 28 Chinese organizations to a black list over their roles in human rights violations in Xinjiang, effectively blocking those entities from buying American products.

The organization were accused of "human rights violations and abuses in China's campaign targeting Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region," the department said in a statement.

The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation also came into force in 2018, under which biometrics is considered a "special category of personal data" that requires special legal bases for using and processing.

In the U.S., San Francisco took a stand against potential abuse of such data in 2019 by banning the use of facial recognition software by the police and other government agencies.

Yet, such consternation in the West hasn't stopped a growing number of startups making their forays into this sector and looking to export their technologies to Southeast Asia and beyond.

Facial recognition technology is already used widely in payments in China. In some 1,000 7-Eleven convenience stores in southern parts of the country, consumers can pay for products by simply having their faces scanned.

Iris and palm recognition systems are also spreading fast in China.

Deep Blue Technology, an artificial intelligence startup, for instance, uses palm recognition technology to take payments. Consumers place their hands over a palm-reading device to access items. The total amount owed is then calculated automatically and the money withdrawn from consumers' digital payment accounts.

China Construction Bank, one of the top four lenders in China, uses special iris recognition goggles to verify the identify of mortgage buyers.

One company has taken the technology even further. "Gait recognition" startup Watrix has developed a monitoring system that can recognize body shapes and movements, allowing it to identify individuals from even 50 meters away. The system is principally designed to monitor workers at mines and factories for their safety, according to the company.

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