Could a technical glitch have played a part in the tragic death of a female taxi passenger in China last week? An online debate over the safety of new technology has begun after Didi Chuxing said the facial recognition system on its ride-pooling service Hitch failed to identify an unregistered driver who is suspected of killing a female passenger.
Last week a man in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, was able to log into the account of his father because Didi’s night mode facial recognition system failed to engage, according to a statement from the company. The 26-year-old man allegedly went on to rape and kill his passenger, a 21-year-old flight attendant, before being found dead himself by police in a river on Saturday, according to a report from the official Xinhua News Agency.
Facial recognition technology – which enables the automatic identification of an individual from a secure database of digital images – has become part of daily life in China as the country continues to be a leading adopter of an array of cutting-edge technologies, such as artificial intelligence and robotics. Facial recognition systems are used in a broad range of sectors, including public security, transport, financial services and retail but their success will depend on the ongoing maintenance of public confidence.
Drivers for Didi’s Hitch service have to provide at least three forms of identification, including a valid drivers licence, identity card and vehicle ownership documents. Although Didi has admitted its facial-scanning feature failed to work in this instance, the exact reason why remains unclear. Didi did not immediately respond to an email inquiry about the details of the technical failure or the technology developer used.
Didi on Friday announced a one-week suspension of its ride-pooling service in China. It also said it was continuing to investigate the Henan case to see if procedures were followed correctly, as its customer service team had tried to contact the suspect five times on a previous verbal complaint of sexual harassment.
The incident has revived wider concerns about the safety of the ride-hailing industry, which is aimed at pairing up commuters heading in the same direction. Two unnamed women filed a class-action suit against Uber in the US in November last year, alleging that its “poor” driver vetting had led to the sexual harassment of thousands of female passengers, including rape. Uber sold its operations in China to Didi in 2016 in return for a minority stake in the business.
Didi has also faced incidents in the past. Two years ago, mainland media reported a 24-year-old man who fraudulently signed up as a Didi driver had confessed to killing a young woman passenger and dumping her body in a remote part of Shenzhen. Didi pledged at the time to to tighten up driver regulations.
The ride-hailing giant has been on a global expansion drive after raising billions in cash. According to a previous report from The Wall Street Journal citing people familiar with the situation, it may also be preparing for an IPO. The company has signed a string of partnerships with automakers to develop self-driving and electric vehicles, and pushed into new services such as food delivery as it seeks to become an all-encompassing on-demand mobility firm.
Didi has apologised to the victim’s family and the public for the passenger death last week, adding that it will announce more specific details of an operational review. It said it would vet its drivers more stringently in future and overhaul its operational and customer service systems.