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Baidu swaps tickets for facial recognition in historic Chinese 'water town'

The first large-scale deployment of the company's biometric tech

Baidu

Chinese tech giant Baidu has been pushing its facial recognition technology for a while now, touting its industry-leading accuracy. Now, the technology is being used in its first major physical deployment: verifying visitors’ identities in the Chinese tourist destination of Wuzhen.

Wuzhen is a 1,300-year-old water town, a scenic destination that's been preserved as a historic park. Guests can stay in hotels within Wuzhen, and facial recognition will be used instead of passes to grant them entry to various attractions. Yuanqing Lin, director of Baidu's Institute of Deep Learning, tells The Verge that visitors will have their picture taken when they first enter the park, with the company’s technology using this to verify their identity at 10 camera gates around Wuzhen.

"With our technology, you don’t need to present ID," says Lin. "When you are approaching a gate it will take a photo of you and it will compare that photo to the database. Just one step." He says that the previous system used a combination of photo ID and fingerprint scanning but was too slow. Facial recognition, by comparison, works "almost as quickly as walking by," says Lin, processing identities in less than a second.

Baidu does not operate the system or provide hardware like cameras or gates. Instead, it licenses its machine learning-powered facial recognition tech and the servers this runs on, as well as helping the park’s operators install the system. "Before, we’ve mostly used facial recognition for internet business, but this is the first physical deployment of this scale," says Lin. "We could see this technology being adapted very quickly in other places, and we’re in active discussion with other theme parks."

The historic town of Wuzhen has been described as the "Venice of the East." (Image credit: Creative Commons / Jakub Hałun)

Facial recognition isn’t a perfect system though, and there are ways it can be fooled. Earlier this month, for example, a group of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University were able to create pairs of printed glasses (costing just $0.22 a pair) that could trick facial recognition systems into thinking they were someone else entirely. Baidu claims its system is too accurate to be fooled by this trick, but it seems more likely park staff would simply spot someone wearing the odd-looking glasses.

What might be more worrying for privacy advocates is the normalization of facial recognition, and the subsequent creation of small, privately owned databases of biometric data. In the case of Wuzhen, Baidu says it's up to the park’s operators to decide what happens to this data, so should we be worried about the slow creep of biometric verification?

Andrew Meehan, communications and policy director at the Identification Technology Association (IdTA), says that in America, most people are happy with commercial biometric systems, but fear that the government will use the data for surveillance. "There’s a fear the federal government might co-opt these commercial systems and gain access to them, but it’s really unfounded," says Meehan. He notes that there are "very real protections of consumers’ privacy and data," and points to recent battles like Apple vs. the FBI as evidence of their strength. "Even in the case of a terrorist investigation, Apple resisted," he notes.

Meehan is doubtful about the accuracy of Baidu’s system, though, and suggests it would be difficult for the company to process identities as securely as it claims in just one second. But, he says, with applications like this, the stakes are so low that it's probably not a concern. "They’re only trying to prevent people from losing tickets," he says. "It's when you transfer this to security, these systems have to be a lot more accurate and do a lot more."