(Adds comments from Chinese Embassy, Huawei and Megvii) by Avi Asher-Schapiro
BERLIN, Jan.13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Chinese tech giants have registered patents for tools that can detect, track and monitor Uighurs in a move that human rights groups fear could reinforce oppression of the Muslim minority. The series of patents, filed way back in 2017, was unearthed by IPVM, a video surveillance research company.
In a report released Tuesday, IPVM reveals a group of patents for systems that could be used to analyze images for Uighur presence and connect to ongoing surveillance cameras and facial recognition networks. “We cannot ignore the fact that these technologies have been developed to be able to efficiently carry out … brutal oppression,” Rushan Abbas, executive director of the rights group Campaign for Uyghurs, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, said the cameras operating in public places in Xinjiang were not “targeting any specific ethnicity.” UN officials said China is turning the Xinjiang region, where many Uighurs live, into a “huge internment camp”, with patented tracking technology seen by rights groups as the key to repression.
“These technologies allow Chinese police to examine a large database of faces and mark faces that the AI has marked as non-Chinese or Uighur,” says Charles Rollet, an IPVM researcher. “There are important implications for human rights” The UN estimates that more than a million Chinese Muslims, many of whom are from the Uyghur minority was detained in Xinjiang province, where activists say crimes against humanity and genocide are in progress.
China has denied any abuse and says its camps in the region provide vocational training and help fight extremism. Research conducted by human rights groups suggests that Chinese tech companies are building Uyghur detection systems, using facial recognition to alert authorities to people’s whereabouts and predictive police tools to identify which one to detain.
Human Rights Watch’s Maya Wang said the world should be alarmed by the use of technology in the persecution of Uighurs. “Imagine if the United States was a total dictatorship, imprisoning blacks just for being black, and there was technology deployed across the country to detect where blacks were, so they could be hunted,” he said.
“This is what we are seeing in China – and the world needs to pay much more attention.” US SPILLOVER
The debate over the role of multinationals in China’s treatment of Uighurs is spreading more and more internationally, with the United States applying sanctions to Chinese tech companies accused of promoting persecution. The incoming Biden administration this week returned a donation from former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, who had registered as a lobbyist for Hikvision, a video surveillance company blacklisted by the U.S. government in 2019.
The boxer company, Mercury Public Affairs, did not respond to a request for comment. According to the IPVM report, many of China’s leading security camera manufacturers have offered “Uyghur analysis,” including the three largest companies: Hikvision, Dahua and Uniview.
Hikvision told Reuters in 2019 that the company “takes global human rights very seriously” and that its technology has also been used in retail, traffic control and commercial buildings. A patent application, filed by Chinese tech giant Huawei in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, describes how artificial intelligence can tell if a pedestrian is Uyghur or not.
“Huawei opposes discrimination of all kinds, including the use of technology to carry out ethnic discrimination,” the company said in an emailed statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Identifying the race of individuals has never been part of the research and development project. It should never have become part of the application and we are taking proactive steps to change it. “
Another patent from Facial recognition start-up Megvii mentions using a tool that can tell if Uighurs are present. The company told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that its patent language was “open to misunderstanding” but that “Megvii has not developed and will not develop or sell racial or ethnic labeling solutions.”
The scale of the persecution means that technology companies in China will increasingly be implicated in some form of abuse, Rollet said. “If you are a Chinese tech company, especially one that deals with facial recognition, and the police are a customer, you will have this type of Uyghur detection analysis,” he said.
The report also uncovered similar patents filed by companies that aren’t directly related to surveillance. A patent field from e-commerce giant Alibaba described the technology to detect race, although it did not specify Uighurs.
“I am shocked that there are so many tech companies helping the Chinese government to monitor us,” said Jevlan Shirmemmet, a Uyghur activist living in Turkey who says his mother is being held in a Chinese internment camp. “If this technology helps them to persecute the Uighurs, why are they doing it.”
(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)
- Research conducted by human rights groups suggests that Chinese tech companies are building Uyghur detection systems, using facial recognition to alert authorities to people’s whereabouts and predictive police tools to identify which one to detain. Human Rights Watch’s Maya Wang said the world should be alarmed by the use of technology in the persecution of Uighurs.
- Chinese technology patent tools capable of detecting and tracing Uyghurs