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China’s political biometric ID surveillance grows in scope and tech

China’s political biometric ID surveillance grows in scope and tech

A surveillance systems company unfamiliar outside its native China is coming into view as Beijing pushes biometrics recognition into more areas of the country.

Mass DNA collections are also underway, targeting oppressed Uyghur and Tibetan minorities in China.

Researchers at the University of Toronto have published a lengthy report about compulsory biometric identifiers being increasingly used for identification and surveillance of Uyghurs in China’s remote and sparsely populated northwest region.

Super Red, also known as the Beijing Wanlihong Technology, makes iris scanning and data-protection software. It claims total assets of 13.5 billion yuan and revenue over 10 billion (US$1.43 billion), and connections to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is part of the central government and Communist Party.

Public records indicate that Super Red has been contracted by 19 Qinghai municipalities for biometrics programs. It reportedly also has built at least 20 province-level iris databases.

According to the report, 1.2 million to 1.5 million eye scans were completed in Qinghai Province between March 2019 and July 2022.

The university researchers have based their conclusions in part on 53 public documents that they say provide insight into the scale of an iris biometrics project that has received little attention.

They claim that 21 percent to 26 percent of Qinghai’s 5.9 million residents have submitted to iris scanning.

It is unlikely that many of those scans will be used to unlock a phone.

Qinghai abuts Xinjiang, an autonomous region that has been an enormous testbed for AI surveillance systems and has received global news coverage. Both are dominated by Uyghurs.

Beijing identifies Muslims as categorically dangerous to the political stability that China’s core Han ethnic group tenaciously tries to impose nationwide. In the last decade, the government has funded advancements in facial recognition software and camera and network hardware.

The result is an international market for Chinese biometric surveillance systems, but also a density of equipment in Xinjiang that is likely second to none around the world. It is used to identify and imprison Uyghurs and others who worry the state in re-education camps.

DNA roundups are occurring, too.

A large group of legislators from around the global are advocating for a halt to commercial activities among companies that are participating in the deployment, use and management of DNA biometric screening systems in “the Uyghur region, Tibet and elsewhere” in China.

Some groups, looking at the biometric identification and surveillance as well as the re-education camps, and see a genocide.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project has called on United States and Canadian executives working for China-based biometric surveillance firm Dahua to resign. Dahua is one of the better-known companies that have profited by Uyghur surveillance policies.

Carmen Cheung contributed to the translation in this report.

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