Huawei accused of using ethnicity-based biometrics to develop alert for Chinese authorities
In a development that might finally get U.S. biometrics firms to walk the corporate-responsibility talk when it comes to how their products are used, a trade publisher has found evidence that Chinese companies developed an automated alarm for oppressed citizens in China.
IPVM, which reports on and tests video surveillance systems, said it discovered a Huawei document describing an interoperability test between Huawei hardware and Megvii AI software involving a so-called “Uyghur alert.”
Uyghurs, sometimes spelled Uighurs, are an ethnic, religious and political minority in China who follow the Muslim faith. It is estimated that 1 million Uyghurs are imprisoned in sprawling internment camps that Beijing calls reeducation camps.
Megvii’s algorithm passed the interoperability test, according to the document initially posted on Huawei’s site and viewed by IPVM, which worked with The Washington Post on the news.
According to The Washington Post’s account, both companies have admitted the document, written in Mandarin, is real, but Huawei removed it from its web page when reporters asked about it.
Huawei and Megvii executives have subsequently said that they have no direct involvement in government efforts to monitor, reeducate or imprison Uyghurs, according to reporting by the publications.
And yet among the Huawei/Megvii system’s reported “basic functions” is the ability to record and analyze images of pedestrians, looking for ethnicity, sex and age. The document said the system could later pull up 10 seconds of video before a Uyghur was automatically identified and 10 seconds after.
Language recognition is a feature, according to the document. Uyghur is a unique language, spoken predominately in Xinjiang, home to the minority group. It is separate from others spoken in China.
Quoted by The Post, Georgetown Law senior associate Clare Garvie said, “There are certain tools that quite simply have no positive application and plenty of negative applications, and an ethnic-classification tool is one of those.”
There is Western participation in this and other Chinese surveillance activities. In this case, Nvidia’s Tesla P4 chip is listed as a component. IPVM noted that the chipmaker has celebrated the fact that its GPUs are used in that nation’s smart city projects.
Direct participation likely will not be necessary for skeptics and opponents of public or private use of facial recognition.
Anyone of any political stripe in the United States who has felt — rightly or wrongly — that a government agency had too much power will likely see this as evidence that unfettered facial recognition is a real threat to their liberty.
If this new development grows in the public’s eye, opposition to biometric systems could grow from today’s spotty calls for bans to a more general rebuke.