Facial Recognition Usage In Shopping Malls Draws Controversy In China

Recently, news about a potential home buyer "wearing a helmet during home viewing" went viral. It was reported that home sales offices installed face-recognizing cameras throughout apartment buildings to identify a returning client, who could not enjoy discounts reserved to referred clients.

The tactic was to prevent sales staff from taking advantage of discounts for referred clients. But it drew controversy about how facial recognition technology is used and how anyone could get their facial data taken without being acknowledged.

Face recognition usage in China has expanded to many retail venues, including home sales offices, shopping malls, and many public spaces. The latest technology can identify and analyze faces even when wearing masks and wearing sunglasses.

On October 1, China implemented a new version of the "Information Security Technology Personal Information Security Specification", which clearly stipulated that before collecting personal biometric information, people should be separately notified of the collection and the purpose, method and scope of the information, as well as the storage time, as well as obtaining the express consent of the person.

But today in China, tens of thousands of cameras are recognizing people’s facial information without disclosure and consent. There is little oversight of how these data are collected, stored and used.

Many real estate industry insiders told Chinese media that the application of face recognition in real estate sales venues has been around for 2 years. Many large developers have installed such systems. Only some will post signs that says facial recognition cameras are installed.

This has attracted the attention of regulatory authorities. On November 29, there were media reports that several sales offices in Nanjing received phone calls from relevant government departments requesting the removal of the existing facial recognition system. This is the first such occurrence in the country.

Just like in real estate sales office, some shopping malls and brand stores have already become users of facial recognition technology. Merchants use this to conduct intelligent analysis of entering and exiting customer flow, business type, floor passenger flow, and merchant passenger flow throughout the mall.

When a consumer visits a mall once, his or her face will be "captured" as soon as they enter the door. When he or she walks around the mall, his or her movement will be completely recorded. When they come back again next time, they will be listed as existing customers.

On each floor and at the entrance of important stores, face recognition cameras or passenger flow analysis equipment that only counts the number of people can be installed to analyze customers’ shopping preferences.

In addition, passenger flow analysis equipment can also be installed at the checkout counter of the shopping mall to analyze the conversion rate of passenger flow.

The facial information can also be tied in to the membership information to identify customer shopping records and facilitate precision marketing messages.

In the 2017 Shanghai Aegean Shopping Park project, a Chinese company called Abizdata that provides such services installed more than 200 face recognition sphere cameras in a six-story shopping mall.

In this year’s Qiandao Lake Yintai City project, each store entrance was also installed a face recognition camera. "In this way, a heat map analysis of the customer’s trajectory can be performed," a company staff said.

Facial recognition cameras are also being installed on advertising screens that are ubiquitous throughout Chinese cities. These ad screens are in the elevator, in hotel lobbies, on the street, and inside shopping malls.

Whenever someone looks at the screen, it could also mean his or her face is being captured by the camera and stored either with the ad company or on the cloud.

Controversy around using facial recognition technology in China is nothing new. Last year, a classroom behavior analysis tool developed by Megvii Technology caused an uproar. The tool captures students’ every move, including raising hands, playing mobile phones, and napping.

China’s laws require personal biometric information be stored separately from personal identification information. The original personal biometric information should not be stored.

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