A leading Chinese facial recognition provider has filed papers for a listing on Hong Kong’s stock exchange.

Facial recognition specialist

Megvii – the maker of the Face++ system – is one of the country’s best known artificial intelligence (AI) companies.

Earlier this year, a Western study suggested its face-checking tech was more accurate than rival systems from Amazon and IBM.

But it comes at a time when campaigners are voicing concerns about facial recognition’s use for surveillance.

Face maps

Face++ has been used in consumer-focused hardware, including:

  • smartphones made by Huawei, Xiaomi and Vivo
  • laptops made by Lenovo
  • Didi Chuxing’s ride-hailing app to let passengers check the driver’s identity
  • “smile-to-pay” terminals tested within KFC restaurants by Alibaba
  • the Chinese dating website Jiayuan, which offered a way to automatically find faces a user was likely to be attracted to based on their preferences

But it says that most of its current revenue comes from “smart city” applications, which include facial recognition and other “security management” tasks at workplaces, educational institutions and major events.

It has also been reported that the Beijing-based firm’s tech has been used to help make thousands of arrests in China, and has been pitched to police departments in other countries.

In addition, it has released Hetu – an operating system for warehouse robots – which it says is already being used by Alibaba’s Tmall subsidiary.

The firm has said that part of the proceeds of the stock sale would be used to fund further research.

Toppled lamppost

Megvii has not publicly disclosed how much it intends to raise, but the Reuters news agency reported that the flotation was aimed at raising between $500m to $1bn (£410m to £820m).

Furthermore it adds that it could be damaged by “rumours” about the abuse of its AI technology.

This has been interpreted by some to reference the fact that earlier this year, Human Rights Watch claimed to have evidence that Face++ was being used as part of efforts to repress Uighur Muslims in China. The campaign rights group subsequently retracted the allegation and issued a correction.

Megvii also faces the fact that facial recognition is becoming an increasingly controversial subject.

In Hong Kong itself, protesters have demanded the removal of so-called smart lampposts over fears they could be used to carry out facial ID checks. Last weekend, footage was shared on social media of one such structure being cut down with an electric saw.

And in the US, three cities have banned federal agencies from using the tech, while politicians in the Senate and Congress are considering new laws to curtail its use by government and commercial bodies.