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Huawei reportedly tested facial-recognition technology that could set off a ‘Uighur alarm’ to the Chinese government when the software identified someone from the persecuted minority group



a group of people standing in front of a sign: Ethnic Uighur demonstrators take part in a protest against China, in Istanbul, Turkey October 1, 2020. Murad Sezer/Reuters


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Ethnic Uighur demonstrators take part in a protest against China, in Istanbul, Turkey October 1, 2020. Murad Sezer/Reuters

  • Chinese telecom giant Huawei tested artificial intelligence software that could identify the faces of Uighur minorities and alert them to the government, according to a new Washington Post report.
  • Huawei published a document that detailed its testing of the software, which could set off a “Uighur alarm” when it finds someone apart of the community.
  • The document was removed from Huawei’s website after the Post reached out, but the company acknowledged that the report exists.
  • The Post’s report comes as the Chinese Communist Party continues its persecution of Uighur Muslims, who are native to Western China. Officials have detained up to one million Uighurs in detention camps.
  • Reports have emerged of torture at the centers, where prisoners subjected to rapes, medical experiments, and — for Uighur women — forced sterilization.
  • Huawei is the world’s largest telecom maker, and its reported involvement in China’s crusade against Uighurs also raises the question of how tech industry power players can aid nations in conducting what activists are condemning as human rights violations.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Chinese telecom giant Huawei tested AI software that could identify Uighur minorities to alert government authorities, according to a report from the Washington Post.

The outlet viewed an internal company document signed by Huawei representatives that revealed it worked with a facial recognition startup called Megvii in 2018 to test an AI-powered camera system that could scan faces and guess a person’s age and other factors. The software reportedly could set off a “Uighur alarm” when it pinpointed someone from the minority group. Uighurs are a largely Muslim group, and have been subjected to extensive persecution by the hands of the Chinese government.

The document was posted on Huawei’s website and was removed after the Post and the research group IPVM requested a comment, according to the report. Huawei and the startup confirmed to the outlet that the document is real.

The camera system was successful in taking real-time photos of people as well as replaying video footage when a face belonging to a member of the Uighur community was identified, according to the Post. 

Huawei did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment, but Huawei spokesman Glenn Schloss told the Post that the document was a test and has not been applied in a real-world setting. He also said Huawei does not provide “custom algorithms or applications.”

Since 2016, China has detained up to 1 million Uighurs – who are native to Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwest China – in internment camps, centers that the government has called “reeducation camps.” Officials at the camps force the Uighurs to abandon their culture and adopt Chinese customs, like learning the Mandarin language. Reports of torture have surfaced, including one woman who said she witnessed a gang rape and medical experiments on the prisoners while teaching Chinese propaganda in the camps. The government has also been accused of sterilizing Uighur women.

Authorities have justified their actions by claiming Uighurs are terrorists and religious extremists, as Business Insider’s Alexandra Ma reported.

The Chinese government has already been using high-tech surveillance tools to monitor Uighurs, including installing hundreds of thousands of cameras in Xinjiang to identify them and spying on them through their phones.

The Washington Post report raises the question of how technology, specifically AI, can be leveraged by world leaders to carry out political bidding, as well as the role that industry giants play in such agendas.

Read more: Europe is catching up with the US and China as all sides plow money into the ‘AI arms race’, experts say

International human rights activists and nations have condemned China’s actions – the UK said in July that it was considering sanctioning China due to the “gross and egregious” human rights violations that are surfacing in reports, according to the BBC.

Human rights advocates have also called Huawei out for its involvement in efforts to aid China and other nations in its oppression of minority groups. As the outlet notes, Uganda authorities have already employed Huawei technology as part of their mission to monitor protesters and political adversaries.

Megvii, the startup that Huawei reportedly worked with on the system, was also one of a few Chinese companies to be sanctioned by the US Commerce Department in 2019 over its contribution to China’s “campaign of repression” against Uighurs and other minorities, according to the Post.

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