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UK panel sketches the reach of ethnicity recognition systems across China

UK panel sketches the reach of ethnicity recognition systems across China

The scale of systems behind China’s alleged persecution of minorities — chiefly Uyghurs — continue to beggar the imagination.

The government last year sought a province-wide facial recognition system capable of not just spotting or even identifying a religious or political minority but of predicting if social unrest was in the offing, according to a private-citizen investigation underway in the United Kingdom.

It is well-known in biometrics industry and human-rights circles that the Chinese government is leaning harder and harder on software developers in hopes of permanently neutralizing perceived domestic threats down to individual people.

The investigation, being conducted by an independent, non-governmental U.K. tribunal, was launched 15 months ago to establish as many facts as possible on what is happening in China.

September 12, the panel, known as the Uyghur Tribunal (it also is investigating charges of oppression against other Chinese Turkic Muslims) posted video of expert witness testimony that was sobering.

Among those asking questions were lawyers and academics, some of whom clearly were just grasping the power of facial recognition to monitor and control populations on a continental scale.

The focus was on alleged Chinese human rights abuses, but the information could also be seen as fair warning that the same technology can be readily deployed perhaps in any nation.

Conor Healy, government director of surveillance-industry publisher IPVM, told the tribunal that he could think of no legitimate purpose for the kind of facial recognition software that is literally being codified by Beijing.

His testimony was based on a sizable report published August 20 by IPVM, which has done as much as almost any publisher around the world to detail Beijing’s unprecedented digital surveillance network.

Healy displayed a government document setting out specifications for purpose-built algorithms capable of spotting, identifying and aiding in the jailing of specific ethnic minorities. State-owned and ostensibly private companies have bid on public/private surveillance projects to deliver the goods.

Companies that have patented software designed to separate ethnicities (or who have applied for patents) include Megvii, Hikvision and Alibaba, according to Healy.

“Virtually unheard of” was how he described the size of some of these projects, all of which are controlled by provincial governments under careful national observation.

Mosques are typically heavily surveilled in the projects, but the intention is to be able to almost diagram every Muslim’s daily activities. There are reports that even those who avoid being shipped off to remote concentration camps can find themselves recorded by government camaras throughout their homes.

One contract that IPVM uncovered was won by CCTV and face biometrics provider Dahua Technology. The $686 million contract called for Dahua to build a county’s sprawling facial recognition system and operate it for nine years

Indeed, a Dahua smart-city project, documentation of which was found unsecured online by IPVM, boasted a function called “real-time Uyghur warnings” that would prevent police from, presumably, being caught unawares by someone identified by algorithms.

It is far from alone. Huawei is accused of using ethnicity-based biometrics that alert the government to the presence of Muslims. The same is true for Alibaba.

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