The Airbnb of China is using facial recognition to check in guests

Smile for the camera!
Smile for the camera!
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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To use the Airbnb of China, you might need to unlock a door with your face.

Xiaozhu, the Chinese home-sharing company akin to Airbnb, plans to add facial recognition-enabled door locks to 80% of its listings in the city of Chengdu, a popular tourist destination in southwest China and Xiaozhu’s second-biggest market by revenue, the South China Morning Post reported.

The stated goal of the facial-recognition door locks is to improve safety and security in the shared-homes business. Xiaozhu also reportedly plans to add smoke detectors, gas alarms, and burglar alarms to apartments, and to blacklist travelers who misbehave during a stay.

Xiaozhu is an online booking platform that connects landlords and tenants to facilitate short-term rentals. The company also has a full-service offering that handles everything from photography to cleaning, so that landlords don’t need to interact with their guests. In October, Xiaozhu raised nearly $300 million at a valuation thought to top $1 billion.

Sharing-economy companies in China have seized on facial recognition as a solution to the sector’s trust problem—that is, how to convince customers it’s safe to accept a service like a ride or a home stay from a stranger. Last year, Chinese ride-hail giant Didi Chuxing added a mandatory facial-recognition check for drivers after a 21-year-old woman was murdered.

In the US, the trust problem has largely been addressed through reviews that customers and service providers leave of each other. The system allows for significantly more privacy than facial recognition, but also has its flaws. Driver ratings on Uber are so inflated that almost all riders leave their driver the best possible rating, five stars. Airbnb guests have accused the company of deleting negative reviews to keep bad hosts operating on the platform.

Xiaozhu said at the time of its October financing that it had added facial-recognition technology from Chinese internet conglomerate Alibaba to door locks in roughly 40 cities. Xiaozhu claims to have half a million active listings.

Facial-recognition technology is fairly commonplace in China. It’s used to order at KFC, to board plans, and to catch drug users. Mobile payment company Alipay’s “Smile to Pay” service can reportedly recognize users even if they change their makeup and put on a wig.