Shanghai has begun rolling out a drug collection terminal equipped with facial recognition technology for people buying certain medicines at pharmacies and hospitals in an effort to stem abuse.

At the new terminals, pharmacists and buyers of controlled medicines – such as those containing sedatives and psychotropic substances – will be asked to verify their identities by scanning their faces, according to local reports on Wednesday.

The system, which scans both pharmacists and patients, is designed to flag potential and high-risk abusers as well as prevent health care professionals from colluding to help patients illegally obtain drugs.

The new facial recognition system is expected to prevent potential abusers from obtaining prescription medicines and turning them into raw materials to produce illegal drugs such as crystal meth. (Picture: AFP)

The move is expected to prevent potential abusers from obtaining prescription medicines containing ephedrine, psychotropic substances and tranquilizers and turning them into raw materials to produce illegal drugs – an increasing problem in China and the rest of the world, according to state news outlet China News Service. For instance, ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, commonly found in cold and allergy medications, is a key component of crystal meth.

Shanghai’s health care and anti-drug agencies have been testing the terminals since November and expect to achieve full coverage of all of the city’s medical institutions by the first half of next year, state-funded The Paper reported.

So far, the trial system has been adopted by 31 health care organizations across seven districts and performed more than 300 facial scans, according to China News.

The drug collection terminals are yet another example of the ever-expanding applications of facial recognition technology in China, where it is increasingly becoming part of people’s lives and used for everything from mobile payments to identifying jaywalkers. After success with security and surveillance applications, China is now pushing the technology's adoption in the healthcare and education arenas.

About 118 million Chinese people signed up for facial recognition payments in 2019 compared to 61 million in 2018, according to a report by iiMedia Research. By 2022, the research consultancy expects the number of users to exceed 760 million, about half of the country’s population.

While the government has touted benefits including security and convenience, the ubiquity of facial recognition in the country has also sparked concerns over privacy and data security: nearly 80% of people in China fear that their facial data may be leaked, a survey by Nandu Personal Information Protection Research Center showed. Last November, China had its first facial recognition lawsuit when a law professor sued a wildlife park after it replaced its fingerprint-based entry system with one that uses facial recognition.