IPVM, a video surveillance research group and BBC have reported that Chinese company Huawei had filed for a patent for its Artificial Intelligence technology capable of tracking Uyghur Muslims. In its report, IPVM said that they found a patent application authored by Huawei and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government. In the application, they discussed a technology to detect Uyghur Muslims.
China has race-detection technology deployed across the country
As per IPVM’s report, China has deployed AI software across police security camera networks that is capable of detecting race of the person based on facial markers. The technology detects if someone’s face looks Uyghur, Han (Ethnic Majority of China) or ‘other’. China’s security camera manufacturers, including the three largest ones Hikvision, Dahua and Uniview, offer ‘Uyghurs analytics’ in their systems. These analytics are also included in the official facial recognition guidelines issued by the PRC government.
2018 patent authored by Huawei and PRC Government
IPVM spotted a July 2018 patent application authored by Huawei and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) for the “identification of pedestrian attributes”, Uyghurs are referenced as one “race” that “can be” detected in the “target” pedestrian. As per patent documents, the technology can identify gender, age, race (Han or Uyghur), body type, top style, top colour, etc.
CAS is China’s top research arm. In 2020, it was allotted a budget of $15 billion.
Huawei’s response on the controversy
Huawei was contacted by IPVM to get comments on the patent. The company said in its reply that they oppose discrimination of all types, including the use of technology to carry our ethnic discrimination. It said, “Huawei opposes discrimination of all types, including the use of technology to carry out ethnic discrimination. Identifying individuals’ race was never part of the research and development project. It should never have become part of the application and we are taking proactive steps to amend it. We are continuously working to ensure new and evolving technology is developed and applied with the utmost care and integrity.”
The company further said that they are proactively working to amend the patent application. The main concern here is Huawei decided to amend the application only after questions were raised on their intentions. It has to be noted that Huawei was barred by the United States, India, Australia and the European Union from supplying equipment to the government on the pretext of security concerns.
Huawei is not alone to develop race-detection technology
Huawei is not the only Chinese company that has developed AI-based technology that is capable of detecting Uyghur Muslims. There are several large corporations in China that have developed similar technology including Alibaba.
In June 2019, Megvii submitted an application to patent its technology that can extract facial features. As per IPVM’s report, it can classify people based on ethnicity, including Han, Uyghur, Non-Han, Non-Uyghur and unknown. In another patent filed in 2017, Megvii said that its technology could “Method, device and computer memory for evaluating face recognition algorithm” mentions “minority” ethnicity detection, stating “Race (minority) can include yellow race, black race people, white people, etc.”
In its defence, Megvii said that the language of its patent is open to misunderstanding. It further added that it “has not developed and will not develop or sell racial or ethnic labelling solutions.”
SenseTime, PRC’s largest facial recognition startup filed a patent in July 2019 for a “Method and device for retrieving images”, SenseTime mentions “Uyghurs” as one of the “ethnicities”. As per the patent documentation, the technology can detect people based on ethnicity and age group. The tech can further categorize age groups based on their actual needs.
When IPVM contacted SenseTime, they said that the patent’s language is regrettable and they will update it. They said, “SenseTime’s AI Code of Ethics [formed in 2019] does not address Uyghurs or ethnicity-detecting AI software. It does note that “biases in historical data might result in an algorithm discriminating against a certain age group, race or gender”.
Often called the Amazon of China, Alibaba had filed a patent in 2018 for an “image set generation method, device and image recognition module” includes “race, ethnicity” as possible “applications”. The applications based on the technology can identify people based on race, ethnicity or region. Uyghur was not explicitly mentioned in the patent application. In an investigation done by IPVM and The New York Times, they found out that Alibaba Cloud offered Uyghur recognition services on an API guide on the China website. Alibaba removed the service after the report.
In its response to allegations, Alibaba said, “Racial or ethnic discrimination or profiling in any form violates our policies and values. We never intended our technology to be used for and will not permit it to be used for targeting specific ethnic groups.”
Apart from these companies, IPVM reported that Baidu, Intellifusion and SensingTech also filed similar patents in recent years. It is also notable that Alibaba’s chief Jack Ma is currently off-radar after he criticized Chinese government.
China’s history of racial discrimination and human rights abuse
Several reports have suggested that China is indulging in racial discrimination of Uyghur Muslims. The PRC government has sent hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in concentrations camps allegedly for ethnic cleansing. The Chinese government has said that they provide volunteer training and education in these camps, but independent reports suggest these camps are meant for brainwashing Uyghur Muslims. A recent report indicated that China is using Uyghur Muslims as forced labour in several industries across China.