World Bank accused of unknowingly funding China’s biometric surveillance in Xinjiang

facial recognition for biometric surveillance in China

Was China’s surveillance state built with World Bank loans? According to official procurement documents, China tried to use the World Bank’s loan program to buy facial recognition technology used to control ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region, reports Axios, after allegedly getting ahold of the paper trail dated June 2017 and written in Chinese.

The documents describe how Chinese loan recipients were going to use the money obtained under the “Xinjiang Technical and Vocational Education and Training Project” program to buy facial recognition cameras and software, night-vision cameras, and other surveillance technology for use in Xinjiang schools.

Started in 2015, the funding consists of $50 million dispersed over five years to five vocational schools. As it turns out, however, China created internment camps and named then “vocational training centers,” where it kept over a million people, mostly male members of ethnic minorities, under strict surveillance.

Attention was drawn in August to the possible real use of the loan, which led to the World Bank providing funding only for the original schools and not their partners. However, Axios writes, the documents it obtained actually came from the original schools that still receive funding.

What’s more, one of the original schools appears to have asked for a facial recognition system that can be used to construct a surveillance database of blacklisted faces with police alarms for when “blacklisted individuals pass through.” With a total estimated budget of $12,800, one of the system requirements was to “distinguish between males and females with a reliability of 97%.”

Overall, loan recipients were interested in equipment that would work seamlessly with video surveillance from HikVision and DaHua, companies that have recently been blacklisted by the U.S. Government who now forbids U.S. companies from exporting components to 28 companies accused of sustaining campaigns that violate human rights.

In 2018, it was reported that HikVision was providing nearly one thousand facial recognition cameras to the Chinese government to be installed at the entrances of mosques in a county in the south of the Xinjiang region.

In October, more than 2,700 cameras from companies banned from U.S. government contracts were still in operation at military installations and other sites.

According to the World Bank, the funding was not provided for the surveillance system because the government canceled the plan in October 2017.

“As an institution focused on ending poverty, the World Bank knows that inclusive societies are key to sustainable development, and we take a strong line against discrimination of any kind,” a World Bank spokesperson said. “We promote equal access to opportunities, including education and training, so that everyone can seek to realize his or her full potential. We are fully committed to the integrity of our projects. We respond immediately when issues are raised, and we act based on facts.”

The spokesperson further stated the procurement documents could only be read by Chinese staff as they had not been translated into English, which complicated oversight efforts, and that one of the partner schools had been involved in anti-government protests in 2014, before purchasing $30,000-worth of tear gas and riot gear in 2017.

Read the procurement documents for more details.

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