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Casino ATMs are using facial recognition to spot money launderers in Macau

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The system can verify people against their identity card

Facial Recognition Illustration by James Bareham / The Verge

Casino destination Macau is requiring facial recognition and identification card checks for withdrawals made by Chinese UnionPay cardholders at all ATMs, as reported by Bloomberg. Customers who make a withdrawal from the updated cash machines will be asked to stare into a camera for six seconds so the facial-recognition software can verify them against their identity card.

The move is a three-fold effort to reinforce Macau’s existing anti-money laundering rules, increase banking security, and enable China to try and dampen the outflows pushing down the value of its currency (which, last year, topped $816 billion). Casinos are a classic way to launder money, as individuals can withdraw significant amounts for chips, gamble very little, and then cash out to move the remainder.

This follows Macau’s ban on proxy betting by telephone, which aimed to restrict bets from Chinese gamblers, and a limit on ATM withdrawals from 10,000 patacas to 5,000 patacas per transaction.

The Macau Monetary Authority says the facial recognition software will initially be installed in China UnionPay’s existing 1,200 ATMs in Macau. Other payment providers, including Visa and Mastercard, will be required to adopt the technology at a later date.

Facial recognition software is already used in a number of countries with various applications. In the US, the Biometric Exit project plans to use facial recognition to verify travelers as they leave the country, eventually bringing the technology to every international airport in America. In the UK, British police will use a facial recognition system to scan the Cardiff train station and surrounding areas when the Champion’s League Final happens on July 3rd.

Bloomberg says this is the “first widespread consumer application of facial-recognition security programs in Greater China,” a country with very different expectations of what is acceptable for privacy. The Chinese government regularly removes online content that “propagate[s] negative speech,” and censors messages on group chat platforms like WeChat without letting users know.

Enforcement of a one-to-one match against ID cards at ATMs won’t stop money laundering entirely, but locking down identity is the first step toward any enforcement. As Bloomberg notes, it’s not uncommon in Macau for people to use multiple bank cards for withdrawals, or for friends and family of an account member to make a withdrawal without them being present.