Macau ATMs to Employ Facial Recognition Technology

Posted on: May 8, 2017, 01:00h. 

Last updated on: May 8, 2017, 12:24h.

ATM machines in Macau will soon employ face recognition software, the latest move in the clamp down on money laundering and to prevent capital flight from the Chinese mainland to the semi-autonomous gambling hub.

Zhang Dejiang visits Macau
It’s unlikely to be a coincidence that the announcement came just hours before the visit of China state leader Zhang Dejiang who has come to inspect the reinvented and reborn Macau gambling region. (Image: South China Morning Post)

The Macau government announced Monday that users of UnionPay, China’s only domestic bankcard, will soon be required to insert their mainland identity cards into ATMs and have identities verified by facial recognition software before they can withdraw cash.

The vast majority of visitors to Macau are from the Chinese mainland, accounting for some 20 million of the enclave’s 30 million visitors last year.

But Beijing is concerned that the recent slowdown of the Chinese economy and weakening of the yuan is prompting people to shift capital offshore and into foreign currencies, putting further pressure on the yuan.

Macau, with its gambling economy, is seen as a hub for money laundering.

Look Busy, the Boss is Coming

It’s likely no coincidence that the government’s announcement came just hours before the arrival of state leader Zhang Dejiang, China’s third most powerful man.

Macau was hit hard by China’s anti-graft crackdown on 2014, which turned the screws on the junket industry and spooked VIP visitors from the mainland into staying away.

But the enclave is in the midst of recovery and the local government wants to keep it that way. It’s anxious to show Beijing that it’s taking economic concerns seriously.

The gambling hub has reinvented itself as a mass market destination, and it’s beginning to pay off. And while Beijing is largely supportive of the new focus, Macau is only too aware of the degree to which its economic health can hinge on regulatory whims of the Chinese government.    

Recovery Tied to Policy Whims

ATM withdrawals by mainlanders in Macau are restricted to around $1,450. Gamblers used to circumvent this restrictions by using their cards to buy expensive goods from pawnshops and jewelry stores based at the casinos, which were then immediately traded for local currency, a practice that has been increasingly suppressed.

In December last year, local media reports that Beijing was about to halve the withdrawal cap on ATMs caused casino stock to plunge.

But it rallied several days later on the news that initial reports were inaccurate and that daily withdrawal limits would remain the same. Instead each individual withdrawal would be halved.

As Vitaly Umansky, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Bernstein, told the Financial Times, the new ATM measures may remind investors that “Macau risks are largely tied to policy and the power of the government to limit growth has not been diminished.”