Alibaba's Mobile Payment System Uses Selfies for Facial Recognition ID

The fledgling system matches a selfie taken at the time of purchase with a stored image of the account holder to prove their identity and allow the purchase to go through.

Alibaba, facial recognition, selfies

Chinese e-commerce merchant Alibaba is developing a mobile purchase security system that uses a selfie taken on a smartphone at the time of a purchase to compare to a stored photo using facial recognition software to positively identify a buyer.

The system, still in development, was demonstrated by Jack Ma, founder and CEO of Alibaba Group Holdings, at the CeBIT 2015 conference in Germany this week. The facial recognition system is being created to work with Alibaba's own mobile payments system, called Alipay.

Ma demonstrated the facial-recognition payment system, called Smile to Pay, at CeBIT by purchasing a souvenir stamp from the 1948 Hanover trade fair via Alibaba's e-commerce site, according to an article in the South China Morning Post.

"[Using] online payments to buy things is always a big headache," Ma said, according to the report. "You forget your password; you worry about security. Today, we'll show you a new technology, how people in the future will buy things online."

The technology is being developed by Ant Financial, a subsidiary of Alibaba that also operates Alipay, which is China's largest online and mobile payments service, according to the report. Alipay has more than 300 million registered users and handles approximately 80 million transactions every day, according to the company.

The Smile to Pay service will be launched in China first, before rolling out in other countries, but no launch date has yet been announced, according to the South China Morning Post. "A company spokeswoman said Alibaba is 'quite serious' about developing the technology," the newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, Ant Financial is also working on other secure mobile user identification systems that would require users to give a voice command with a keyword or phrase to be logged in to make a purchase, according to a report by CNBC. The system would even allow users to log in securely using a scanned image of something as unique as a tattoo or a photo of a pet, CNBC reported.

Alibaba is not well-known in the United States yet, but it is growing around the world. In September 2014, the company garnered $21.8 billion on the first day of its stock sales in a then-record IPO on the New York Stock Exchange, according to an earlier eWEEK report. That $21.8 billion first-day IPO result easily eclipsed the previous record, $19.7 billion raked in by Visa International, when it went public in 2008. In comparison, Facebook made $16 billion on its IPO in 2012, and Google's 2004 offering earned a relatively modest $1.7 billion.

The company's $232 billion early valuation at the time made it more valuable, on paper, than eBay (market cap $65 billion) and Amazon ($153 billion) combined.

Alibaba sells a ton of merchandise but more than anything markets mobile devices, cloud services and mobile apps. It wants to sell in high volumes to small and midsize companies in the same way Amazon sells to consumers.

Ma, Alibaba's founder, is a former English teacher who started the company in his Hangzhou, China, apartment in 1999. In China, he is being hailed as a new Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates.