We have already moved from coins and banknotes to paying with cards. Then we moved from cards to phone or fingerprint payment. Face recognition payment is yet another development.

The technology is already in use at certain retail stores, vending machines and restaurants, starting with China’s Alipay in 2018. The Georgian city of Tbilisi implemented it in its public transport in 2019. In the same year, the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) launched a pilot project. Guiyang, a city in south-west China, followed in July 2020. 

But none of these cases can compare with what is happening in Moscow. The Russian capital, with the second busiest underground railway in the world, began to introduce face payment in October 2021. The Initial test involved 1000 volunteers and one line, but it is estimated that in the next two or three years, 10% to 15% of the passengers could use the face recognition technology which will eventually be available on all 14 lines of the metro. Later on, it should cover the buses and streetcars too.

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From the user’s point of view it’s simple to switch to this means of payment. All that is needed is to upload a photo of one’s face and connect one’s bank and metro card with an app called Mosmetro. After that, passengers just have to look at the cameras above the turnstiles every time they use the underground.

A promising technology

The technology seems promising. Face recognition payment is up to three times faster than conventional methods, meaning shorter queues. Muscovites don’t have the bother of recharging their metro cards or buying tickets. Tourists need not waste time obtaining transit cards or buying expensive single tickets, since face pay is an easier alternative.

Transport providers need not worry about free-riding or several passengers slipping into the metro on one card. If everybody used the facial payment system, ticket inspectors would be redundant. From a sustainability perspective, the material used on tickets and cards is saved. The system even works during Covid, since masks pose no obstacle. The advocates of face recognition claim that the technology reads a biometric key, not a human face, dismissing concerns over privacy. Still, this last aspect opened a debate that eventually shed light on more troubling aspects of this innovative payment method.

Moscow: a city with cameras everywhere

Cameras in the metro are not new in Moscow. They were there for security purposes before payment by face recognition was introduced. And the metro is not an exception. Russia’s megalopolis has installed more than 200 000 surveillance cameras, making it the world’s second largest CCTV network, according to Telecom Daily.

Even though officially the cameras’ purpose is to make the city safer, in reality they have been used to prosecute opposition protesters and enforce Covid restrictions. The case of Sergey Mezhuyev, mistakenly detained after being wrongly identified, puts the reliability of face recognition in doubt.

Critics of the system, such as Roskomsvoboda, an NGO, has revealed that one can pay to track Muscovites’ data on the dark web, raising the question of where the data ends up and who can access it. The Law on Experimenting with Artificial Intelligence of April 2020 regulates facial recognition technology only for banking, so the city can test the payment method in the metro without restrictions tied to the treatment of personal data. All in all, concerns about privacy pose an important drawback. Finally, we must ask: is the face payment system really worth the cost, given the enormous disparity between the quality of transport between Moscow and other cities?

What’s next for Face Recognition?

Other cities haven’t gone as far as Moscow. Seoul’s metropolitan government launched its own pilot system at the beginning of 2021, but the technology has not been fully implemented. Andrew Constance, the transport minister of New South Wales, proposed introducing a face recognition payment system in 2019, but more than two years later Sydney’s inhabitants still pay by conventional methods. However, the technology is increasingly popular at airports, where it compares the faces of passengers with photos in their passports.

Unsurprisingly, the trajectory of development hasn’t stopped and we can assume that in the future, silhouette recognition will allow us to identify people even when their faces aren’t visible.

Nevertheless, both facial and silhouette payments are unlikely to become common in the EU, because of its data and privacy regulations.