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Standards for biometric surveillance being drafted for ITU by Chinese businesses

Standards for biometric surveillance being drafted for ITU by Chinese businesses

Technology companies based in China are working to shape United Nations’ standards for facial recognition, video monitoring, and surveillance of cities and vehicles, with ZTE, Dahua, China Telecom and others proposing standards to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), The Financial Times reports.

While European and North American businesses participate heavily in the standards bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the ITU gives China a chance to leverage its influence in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where ITU standards are often adopted as policy.

“African states tend to go along with what is being put forward by China and the ITU as they don’t have the resources to develop standards themselves,” explains internet human rights company Global Partners Digital Head of Legal Richard Wingfield to FT.

Several African nations have invested in Chinese facial recognition and related technologies, with a purchase of CCTV systems with facial biometrics from Huawei by Uganda a recent example. FT also reports that biometric data from African countries could be of particular interest to Chinese companies, who can use it to train their algorithms for improved results, particularly matching faces of people with darker skin.

Members of international delegations told FT that ITU standards are increasingly written by companies, rather than governments. The standards, which typically take around two years to be drafted and adopted, are highly influential around the world, however, particularly in the developing world.

“A number of Chinese companies have really started to rise and seize market share around the world in these areas [such as face recognition and visual surveillance],” says Steven Feldstein, a fellow at U.S. think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has researched the global expansion of AI surveillance. “It’s a deliberate investment prioritisation by the Chinese state to help flourish the [AI] sector, and we are now seeing the fruits of that.”

“The drive to shape international standards . . . reflects longstanding concerns that Chinese representatives were not at the table to help set the rules of the game for the global Internet,” according to a 2018 report from U.S. think tank New America. “The Chinese government wants to make sure that this does not happen in other ICT spheres, now that China has become a technology power with a sizeable market and leading technology companies, including in AI.”

The standards proposed have been criticized, however, for crossing over from technical specifications to policy ones, including use cases and data requirements.

Smart street light standards proposed by the group are closely mirrored in the design of ZTE’s Smart Street 2.0, a source working closely with the ITU told FT, and digital human rights non-profit Article 19’s Mehwish Ansari says ITU standards meetings have “virtually no human rights, consumer protection, or data protection experts present.”

“(I)t’s not at a mature enough space to enable standards to be set,” in Ansari’s opinion.

The draft standard for facial recognition is expected to be finished by the end of 2019, before going through a fast-tracked approval process. It includes a requirement to store features such as race, skin color, face style, birthmarks, scars, and other demographic characteristics in a database.

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