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China’s new “Uighur alarm” facial-recognition technology raises concerns over discriminating against minority groups

17 December 2020

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Chinese technology giant Huawei has tested face “attribute recognition” software capable of identifying ethnic Uighurs from surveillance images, raising concerns that artificial intelligence is becoming an increasingly important tool in the government’s crackdown on ethnic groups and religious minorities, including Christians.

The system uses artificial intelligence to scan faces in a crowd and estimate each person’s age, sex and ethnicity, enabling an automated “Uighur alarm” to be sent to police. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has interned tens of thousands of ethnic Muslim Uighurs in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang province during a sustained campaign of persecution against the group, as well as other non-atheist minorities.

Soccer star Antoine Griezmann has severed his “global brand ambassador” advertising deal with Huawei over the company's involvement in “Anti-Uighur” technology [Image credit: Biser Todorov]

Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment, is reported to have provided the servers, cameras, cloud-computing infrastructure and other tools for the development of the technology in 2018, according to a document discovered by the research organisation IPVM on Huawei’s website. The document has since been removed and Huawei has described its involvement in the project as “simply a test” that has not seen “real-world application”.

John Honovich, founder of IPVM (an independent advisory group on surveillance technology), said the document showed how “terrifying” and “totally normalised” discriminatory technology has become. “This is not one isolated company. This is systematic,” said Honovich. “A lot of thought went into making sure this ‘Uighur alarm’ works.”

New facial recognition cameras in churches give CCP “complete domination”

Close electronic surveillance of prisoners is all pervasive and continues round the clock in China’s estimated 400 internment centres in Xinjiang. According to Barnabas contacts, the constant surveillance prevents even basic communications between cellmates, making the strictly controlled conditions inside the camps even harsher than the former Soviet-era gulags. Former detainees’ testimonies of abusive treatment in the camps include near-starvation diets, forced medication and being forbidden from praying or other religious activities.

It was revealed in November that facial recognition cameras are being installed in churches in China by the CCP to monitor believers and ensure sermons follow rigid government guidelines. The move was described by one church leader as giving the authorities “complete domination” over church activities, which are already subject to tight government restrictions.

In April 2020, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) denounced the Chinese government’s state-wide use of high-tech surveillance to target minorities, which it said “is amplifying the repression of religious communities”.

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