In further disclosures about China’s artificial-intelligence surveillance programme, a report by The Washington Post has revealed that tech giant Huawei reportedly tested facial recognition software that could send automated alarms when they identify members of the persecuted Uighur community.
Since Chinese authorities started mass detentions of Uighurs in 2017, there have been several reports about these kinds of technological developments in China that have been used to monitor and target the community.
What does the report reveal?
According to the Washington Post report, the programme involves the use of a facial recognition software that send alerts to Chinese government authorities when its cameras identify members of the Uighur community.
There are two Chinese firms involved in the operation and execution of this software, the report says. One is Huawei and the other is Megvii, another Chinese tech company that designs image recognition software.
Since when has this been happening?
The Chinese government has gone to great lengths to monitor, censor and control the Uighur community over the years, but in this case specifically, the report says that Huawei and Megvii started collaborating in 2018 to “test an artificial-intelligence camera system that could scan faces in a crowd and estimate each person’s age, sex and ethnicity”.
According to the Washington Post, Huawei removed documentation related to this programme from its website after the company was contacted for comment. Huawei spokesman Glenn Schloss told the Washington Post that the report “is simply a test and it has not seen real-world application. Huawei only supplies general-purpose products for this kind of testing. We do not provide custom algorithms or applications.”
Why is the programme problematic?
Essentially, the programme is yet another tool in the arsenal being used by the Chinese government to persecute the Uighur minority in China. The country has always defended its use of such surveillance technologies citing public safety concerns, but human rights organisations and international watchdogs are not convinced.
They believe these programmes are being used to exert control over the persecuted minority and to identify individuals whom the Chinese government deems a threat and to quash criticism.
The report suggests that the programme could distinguish and identify Uighurs in crowds. Prior to this, there have been reports of programmes in China that can determine ethnicity as well. Another concern, human rights group says, is that these programmes can result in racial discrimination and profiling.
According to The Washington Post, “the system is bound to return inaccurate results, because its performance would vary widely based on lighting, image quality and other factors — and because the diversity of people’s ethnicities and backgrounds is not so cleanly broken down into simple groupings. ”
Due to its advanced capabilities, the programme is more than just a surveillance programme. “Trained on immense numbers of facial photos, the systems can begin to detect certain patterns that might differentiate, for instance, the faces of Uighur minorities from those of the Han majority in China,” The Washington Post reported.
Is this surveillance new?
This surveillance of the Uighur minority is not new and investigations have shown it happening in various countries around the world where members of the community are living or seeking refuge. Various kinds of surveillance technologies used by China to specifically monitor the Uighur community have been in existence since at least 2017. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
The Chinese government has claimed that these artificial intelligence technologies are being used to curb terrorism in Xinjiang and to monitor and reward what it considers good social behaviour in the country.
In November last year, an investigation by The New York Times had highlighted how China had engaged in a mass detention of Muslims and the role of surveillance programmes in the crackdown and persecution.
What has the international community said about this?
China’s surveillance technologies have been heavily scrutinised by Western powers for the past few years. Huawei and Megvii, both multi-billion dollar companies, have seen a pushback from US authorities who have called them out for representing threats to national security and for human rights violations, particularly in Xinjiang.
In 2019, Megvii was among the eight Chinese tech giants to have been hit with sanctions by the US government for their role in contributing to the persecution of Uighur Muslims in China.
China has already started exporting this technology to countries like Uganda, where government agencies are using it to crackdown on dissent, critics and protestors. Human rights groups are concerned that the use of such technologies may not just be limited to Xinjiang, but may slowly become the norm for governments seeking more control, particularly authoritarian regimes.