The goal is for the system to able to match someone’s face to their ID photo with about 90 per cent accuracy.
The project, launched by the Ministry of Public Security in 2015, is under development in conjunction with a security company based in Shanghai.
The system can be connected to surveillance camera networks and will use cloud facilities to connect with data storage and processing centres distributed across the country, according to people familiar with the project.
However, some researchers said it was unclear when the system would be completed, as the development was encountering many difficulties due to the technical limits of facial recognition technology and the large population base.
At present, similar systems operate on a smaller level, including police databases and city or provincial ID pools.
But these operate separately and are on a much smaller scale.
There is also a national database of police suspects and people of interest to the government.
These may continue to be used independently after the national system is established.
The core data set for the national system, containing the portrait information of each Chinese citizen, amounts to 13 terabytes.
The size of the full database with detailed personal information does not exceed 90 terabytes, according to technical documents on the ministry’s website and a paper written by police researchers.
Chen Jiansheng, an associate professor at the department of electrical engineering at Tsinghua University and a member of the ministry’s Committee of Standardisation overseeing technical developments in police forces, said the system would have to be built on an unprecedented scale because no country had a population as big as China’s.
The system was being developed for security and government uses such as tracking wanted suspects and public administration, he said.
Commercial application using information sourced from the database will not be allowed under current regulations.
“[But] a policy can change due to the development of the economy and increasing demand from society,” Chen said.
Giving commercial sectors access to the database under proper regulation would create new business opportunities by helping to improve customer service, he said.
Chinese companies are already taking the commercial application of facial recognition technology to new heights.
With a smile or blink of the eyes to a camera, students can now enter their university halls, travellers can board planes without using a boarding pass and diners can pay for a meal at KFC.
Some other restaurants have even offered discounts to customers based on a machine that ranks their looks according to an algorithm. Customers with “beautiful” characteristics – such as symmetrical features – get better scores than those with noses that are “too big” or “too small” and those that get better scores will get cheaper meals.
Some public lavatories in Beijing also use facial recognition so that the automatic dispensing machines will deny toilet paper to people who ask for it more than once within a given period.
Facial recognition could supersede other personal identification methods that are used to make payments such as scanning fingerprints or QR codes on a mobile phone.