You’re an inmate at a Beijing prison. You just ran out of toothpaste, so you decide to buy a new tube at the commissary. But wait, you don’t have enough cash.

Fear not: There might be money in your electronic wallet.

Digital payment is an ubiquitous part of daily lives in China. Now the technology is going behind bars, forming part of the Beijing government’s plan to build what it calls a “smart prison”.

Using Alibaba’s payment app Alipay, family members can now pass money to a prisoner. First, they take a photo of the inmate’s national ID card. Once it’s verified, the inmate can receive a maximum of 1,000 yuan (around US$147) each month from a relative.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)

The Beijing Municipal Prison says online payment is available on ecommerce platforms and medical services in its facilities. (Picture: Beijing Municipal Prison)

For better or worse, the proliferation of smartphones and apps has provided security agencies with new tools to do their jobs.

Beijing’s citizens, for example, can pay traffic fines with Alipay or WeChat Pay. Offenders only have to scan a QR code on their traffic tickets. For bikers and jaywalkers who are caught red-handed, they even have the choice of paying on the spot by scanning a QR code provided by the officer -- perfect for those in a rush.

Smartphones are also giving private citizens an easier way to participate in policing themselves. In the southern tech hub of Shenzhen and other cities, people can report traffic violations to police through Alipay and WeChat.

Informants are asked to fill out a form, including information such as the car plate of the offending vehicle and photos showing the scene. Users are required to grant the app access to their GPS location. For all that work, the Shenzhen Traffic Police say they will reward money to successful informants. The amount ranges from 20 yuan (US$2.96) for reporting on someone driving on a lane reserved for public vehicles, to 20,000 yuan (US$2,957) for a serious car crash involving more than three deaths.

The Shenzhen Traffic Police say I need to follow their WeChat account to qualify for a reward, which is certainly one way to get more followers. (Picture: Shenzhen Traffic Police Bureau via WeChat)

While the use of new technology to gather fines and crime information seems harmless enough, other applications have drawn more questions.

Last year, a facial recognition company said it was in talks to build a camera system that would identify jaywalkers and let police send warnings and fines directly to their phones or social media accounts. These facial recognition systems are widely adopted across China -- but they aren’t always accurate. Back in November, one such system mistook the face of a woman on a bus ad for a jaywalker. (She also happens to be one of the country’s most famous businesswomen.)