Would you pay along with your palm?

China Report is MIT Expertise Evaluate’s e-newsletter about expertise developments in China. Signal as much as obtain it in your inbox each Tuesday.

Hey! Welcome again to China Report.

In case you occur to be in Cambridge, MA, this week, come meet me at EmTech, MIT Expertise Evaluate’s huge annual occasion. I’m going to host a couple of panels and hearth chats specializing in international expertise challenges, together with US-China tensions, crypto regulation, and social media misinformation. It’s also possible to simply pop by and say hello.

As I prep for the occasion, I additionally need to share a preview of a captivating story I’m engaged on.

On October 14, a Chinese language tech publication first reported that Tencent had quietly launched a function in WeChat that permits customers to pay by verifying their palm prints. It shortly made headlines in China, the place 800 million people and 10 million distributors already use Tencent’s WeChat Pay, and residents have typically grown skeptical about whether or not buying and selling their biometric information for comfort is definitely useful (and secure). Many Chinese language publications adopted up with their very own reporting. 

Nevertheless, there was solely peripheral proof to indicate Tencent has actually been growing fee expertise based mostly on palm-print recognition. Aside from a couple of low-resolution photographs, reporters might solely actually corroborate the story by discovering that Tencent has been registering logos like “微信刷掌 (WeChat palm scan)” or “WePalm,” and making use of for related patents up to now 12 months. One patent for “scanning and paying tools,” authorized again in December, consists of cameras that may acknowledge “at the very least two varieties of figuring out info together with QR codes, palm-print info, and palm vein info.” 

So, it certain appears to be like as if Tencent is setting the stage for introducing a giant new expertise. However when related stories about Tencent’s palm-print recognition experiment received out in 2021, the corporate responded that it was solely an inner analysis challenge and there was no plan to use it in actual life. And, in spite of everything, huge tech corporations preemptively register logos and patents on a regular basis. (Apple has additionally been granted palm-print recognition patents earlier than, however it doesn’t have associated consumer-facing merchandise.) So how do we all know Tencent is critical this time?

Open-source intelligence! 

In different phrases, I turned to Chinese language social media platforms—notably video companies like Douyin and WeChat Channels—as a result of I suspected that if Tencent had actually been testing the expertise in shops, perhaps some customers would have seen and recorded it.

In numerous posts, I discovered a handful of movies proving that palm-print fee units for Tencent’s WeChat Pay system have been examined in cafes, bakeries, and supermarkets since at the very least July. The movies come from customers in Shenzhen, the town the place the corporate is headquartered, and Guangzhou, one other megacity 65 miles away. Normally, WeChat appears to supply a small low cost, usually beneath 10 RMB ($1.37), for purchasers to check out the brand new function, submit their palm-print information, and use it to pay on the cashier. 

In a single late September video that I discovered notably insightful, an individual who seems to be a WeChat worker will be heard instructing individuals to place their fingers in entrance of a recognition system and file their palm prints. “New function of WeChat Pay. Everyone seems to be welcome to strive our service and assist us,” the voice says. In return, the customers who scan their palms can get a soda for the value of 1 cent.

The person who later uploaded the video asks when this function was launched, and the voice replies that it began half a 12 months in the past however solely not too long ago got here to Guangzhou. 

Screenshot of one of the videos showing a WeChat palm-print payment device.

The fee units in these movies are iPad-size white containers with one display exhibiting directions and a digicam capturing the palm information. It’s unclear whether or not they’re meant just for testing the performance of palm-print recognition expertise or for gathering extra information to assist fine-tune it (or each). Not one of the related movies point out that prospects are being instructed how their information might be used. I requested Tencent for a remark however I haven’t heard again.  

Regardless of their actual use, the units are possible nonetheless within the trial part, as they’re usually proven alongside a word saying “Trial location for WeChat palm-print scan fee” or “Inside testing. Please don’t inform exterior individuals.” In a single picture posted on-line, a written warning states that images of the system is prohibited. 

(Lol, this clearly didn’t cease individuals from taking photographs. And movies. And importing them to the web.)

This reporting expertise reaffirms an concept I’ve had for a very long time: It’s laborious to know what’s occurring in China from the skin, each due to the highly effective censorship machine and due to the border insurance policies that make visiting China tough. But Chinese language video platforms like Douyin and Kuaishou—that are changing conventional websites like Weibo to change into the place the place individuals categorical themselves and doc their lives—can present extra perception than ever. For the reason that content material of movies is much less search-friendly than texts, they’re more durable to type by means of, however in addition they usually pack extra info into only a few seconds. 

Clearly, there’s rather more to the story of palm-print recognition than this preview. Why is the expertise having a second now, after facial recognition has thrived for years? How has the pandemic, which made face masks widespread, modified its course of improvement? How might the rising consciousness of information privateness assist or harm the prospect of palm-print recognition? There are a lot of extra fascinating discussions available concerning the technological and moral facets of the expertise, and I’ll handle them within the full story that we’ll publish quickly. I’ll be sure you hyperlink within the subsequent e-newsletter.

Till then! I’ll see you once more subsequent week (or perhaps in individual this week!).

Have you ever ever discovered one thing stunning on Douyin or related platforms? I’d love to listen to your story. Write to me at zeyi@technologyreview.com.

Meet up with China

1. China’s “inner reference” system, which permits state media journalists to jot down categorized, delicate stories to the management with out being censored, is more and more muting crucial info as Xi Jinping consolidates his energy. (Related Press) 

2. Shein, the Chinese language fast-fashion buying website, is on monitor to generate $24 billion in income this 12 months, which means it might quickly surpass its rivals H&M and Zara, which made $18.1 billion and $27.6 billion, respectively, in 2021. (Wall Road Journal $)

  • Temu, one other Chinese language e-commerce app, is hoping to copy Shein’s success. Nevertheless it gained’t be straightforward. (MIT Expertise Evaluate) 

3. The biggest Foxconn manufacturing unit in China, with over 200,000 employees, is below covid lockdown, and a few employees are fleeing to neighboring cities on foot. (Reuters $)

  • In the meantime, covid protocols abruptly shut down the Disney park in Shanghai on Monday, trapping some guests inside till they will get a damaging PCR end result. (Gizmodo)

4. A Wall Road Journal report revealed the within story of a prisoner swap involving a Huawei govt and two Canadian residents, plus the three-year hostage diplomacy between the US, China, and Canada that made it occur. (Wall Road Journal $)

5. To fast-track their profession progress, Latin American tech employees are leaping between Chinese language tech corporations which might be desperate to pay a hefty quantity for localized expertise. (Remainder of World)

6. After banners protesting zero-covid insurance policies and authoritarianism appeared in Beijing, their messages are being repeated by younger Chinese language individuals world wide—on-line and on college campuses. (New York Instances $)

  • However discussions of the protest have been closely censored on Chinese language social media, notably WeChat, the place individuals may very well be completely banned merely for sharing a photograph of it. (MIT Expertise Evaluate)

7. Newlyweds in China are receiving cellphone calls from the native governments, encouraging them to have infants. (Reuters $)

Misplaced in translation

As gasoline costs hold pushing larger in China, a slew of latest companies that promote gasoline station coupons have been embraced by automobile house owners, the Nationwide Enterprise Every day stories. With these apps, house owners can pre-purchase gasoline at a reduction and use their quota at designated gasoline stations within the coming weeks. The enterprise mannequin is so widespread that there are already about 30 opponents within the discipline, and a few have raised tens of tens of millions of {dollars} from traders. 

However how do they earn cash? The apps pay the gasoline stations at the very least a month after customers make their purchases. And in that point, they lend out the pool of cash in high-interest loans. So they’re truly monetary platforms within the guise of coupon apps, which makes them inclined to monetary market volatility. 

Yet another factor

China’s hottest rapper recently is Zhang Tiegang, a down-to-earth lady from the agricultural northeast. In movies of her performing widespread English rap songs, Zhang hit all the proper movement and pronunciation with a poker face, old school garments, and a backdrop of Chinese language countryside life. The clear distinction between Zhang and the notion of a typical rapper made her viral on Douyin. She’s “a tractor on the skin, a Ferrari on the within,” says one remark below her video. 

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