No card, No Phone, No problem! Alipay: Pay with your face, A balance between convenience, security and privacy

On: September 27, 2020
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Can you imagine that you are able to pay without mobile phones, bank cards, and cash? Alipay made it happen in 2017, and it provides the facial recognition payment that lets people make payments by scanning their faces. In recent years, facial recognition payment has the potential to become a trend, paying by mobile phone is going to be old hat soon.

In mid-2017, Alipay, a third-party mobile and online payment app operated by e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, piloted the world’s first commercial “Smile to Pay” facial recognition payment service at a KFC’s new healthy-eating outlet, KPRO, in Hangzhou China. This was also the first time to take the facial recognition payment technology offline. In 2018, Alipay rolled out its facial recognition payment device dubbed “Dragonfly” that let customers pay with their face without the use of their mobile phones and bank cards(Xie, 2020). In these three years, Alipay has launched the facial recognition payment devices “Dragonfly” in 100 cities in China (France-Presse, 2019). Over 1,000 convenience stores have already installed the facial recognition payment device “DragonFly”. In April 2019, Alipay will plan to spend $420 million over three years on implementing the technology (Takashi Kawakami and Hinata, 2019). Facial recognition payment has the potential to be a hit with a big push from Alipay, its facial recognition technology is reshaping Chinese consumers’ payment behaviors

The convenience and security of Facial recognition payment

Facial recognition payment is a new type of payment method based on artificial intelligence, biometrics, 3D sensing, the system of risk control, and big data technology. Alipay’s facial payment device does not need consumers to take steps like nodding and to open their mouths to verify themselves (Xinhua), it is completed in just two simple steps. For instance, a consumer places the order on the facial payment machine, he/she just looks at the 3D camera for identity verification, entering the mobile phone number for additional security, and then the payment will directly be deducted from his/her linked Alipay account. It is worth nothing that the consumer needs to enable facial recognition function on the Alipay app in advance. The entire payment process only takes 15 seconds, it makes consumer truly achieve that going out shopping without taking anything. Moreover, some supermarkets have proven that Alipay facial recognition payment device helps consumers save up to 50% of their queuing time, improve the efficiency of checkout (Xinhua), and bring convenience to people’s lives.

In addition, compared to traditional payment methods, facial recognition payment offers high accuracy and low intrusiveness. “Facial recognition payment bases on the technology of facial recognition”(Fei, Zhang and Kang, 2019) Face recognition is one of the biometric methods (Lin, 2000), the biometric character is unique, everyone is different, we cannot copy from other people. Alipay’s facial recognition system uses “3D scanning tech collect detailed shape and contour information by projecting a network of infrared dots onto the subject’s face”(Synced, 2019) and uses biometric technology for identity authentication. According to Alibaba, “Dragonfly” the facial recognition payment device embodies high security and recognition capabilities, its facial recognition reaches 99% accuracy. Moreover, by linking sophisticated algorithms with 3D camera can sense remotely biometric features, and identify consumers who make faces, wear heavy make-up, change a hairstyle or stand crowded in front of the camera, it can even tell the difference between two identical twins. Therefore, people would fail to facial payment by using images of other people. Moreover, if consumers lose their cash, mobile phone, and bank cards, or forget passwords while shopping. It leads them cannot make a payment. However, with the emergence of facial-recognition payment, consumers can complete the payment by scanning their faces without the use of mobile phones and bank cards (Zhang and Kang 2019). “As Pan Helin who is a postdoctoral researcher at the Chinese Academy of Fiscal Sciences said that while facial recognition payment brings convenience to people’s lives, it also improves payment security as the facial data cannot be modified like passwords” (Xinhua). “The facial recognition brings a more secure and convenient authentication method than traditional passwords” (Esteban Daniel, 2016).

Privacy issues of Facial recognition payment

However, the utilization of Alipay facial recognition payment is not growing as rapidly even though facial payment is more convenient and safer than other traditional payment systems. Because consumers hold a doubtful attitude towards its privacy issues. An editorial from the Nanfing Daily points out that “spoof attacks could break facial recognition payment systems, and breaches of biometric data would have disastrous influences on privacy” (Burt, 2019). In addition, face recognition technology is capable to identify and track people without consumers’ permission (Prabhakar, Pankanti and Jain 2003). Consumers’ biometric information relates to their faces in database could be stolen and misused by hackers (Vazquez-Fernandez and Gonzalez-Jimenez, 2016). However, even if Alipay claims that they would protect users’ personal data and privacy by using encryption and prevent biometric spoofing by merging software and hardware, these potential privacy risks reduce consumer’s intension of using the facial recognition payment. On the other hand, according to the new intelligence law, “The Chinese government has the power to obtain any private data owned by companies” (Kawakami and Hinata, 2019) in other words, the Chinese government utilizes the facial recognition technology for surveillance, in a sense, personal information and privacy of citizens has been leaked.

The Conclusion

In 2019, Alipay launched the subsidy policy of facial recognition payment, and it provided billions in spending subsidies for vendors and consumers in order to popularize facial recognition payment(France-Presse, 2019). Moreover, Alipay added “beautifying filters” into Alipay cameras to attract more female consumers the use of facial recognition payment (Xinhua Press), it uses their power to make facial recognition technology friendlier. At the same time, Alipay should improve privacy protection and decrease consumers’ privacy concerns, find the balance between convenience, security and privacy that lets more consumers trust and love to use facial recognition payment.


Burt, 2019 | Chris (2019) Facial recognition payments not a hit yet in China, but new services launching, Biometric Update. Available at: (Accessed: 26 September 2020).

France-Presse, A. (2019) ‘Smile-to-pay: Chinese shoppers turn to facial payment technology’, The Guardian, 4 September. Available at: (Accessed: 26 September 2020).

Synced (2019) Close Your Eyes and I’ll Scan You: Chinese Face Payment System Vulnerabilities, Medium. Available at: View at (Accessed: 26 September 2020).

Takashi Kawakami and Hinata Y. (2019) Pay with your face: 100m Chinese switch from smartphones, Nikkei Asian Review. Available at: (Accessed: 23 September 2020).

Xie, S. Y. (2020) ‘In China, Paying With Your Face Is Hard Sell’, Wall Street Journal, 20 September. Available at: (Accessed: 25 September 2020).

Xinhua finance agency (no date) Alipay rolls out new facial recognition payment equipment_Xinhua Finance Agency. Available at: (Accessed: 26 September 2020).

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S.-H. Lin, ‘An Introduction to face recognition technology’, Inf. Sci., vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 1–8, 2000.

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