By Tim Cushing
The Chinese government’s war against its own citizens continues. The repression and persecution of China’s Uighur population has been well-documented. The Chinese government is fighting a surveillance war on multiple fronts, beginning with its own citizens, who must maintain a positive “citizen score” to live life without too much government harassment. Its attempt to hold Hong Kong to the same oppressive standard has been met with significant resistance. But, in the end, China will consummate its takeover of Hong Kong with a removal of its independence.
Uighur Muslims have been the focus of the government’s unmitigated wrath for years. China wants these residents either locked up or living in another country entirely. And it’s pressuring tech companies to assist in their oppression. Far too many have complied. Documents seen by the Washington Post show Huawei has decided to be the Chinese government’s posse, helping the government locate and target Uighur residents.
The Chinese tech giant Huawei has tested facial recognition software that could send automated “Uighur alarms” to government authorities when its camera systems identify members of the oppressed minority group, according to an internal document that provides further details about China’s artificial-intelligence surveillance regime.
The tech Huawei is developing attempts to determine a person’s age, sex, and ethnicity using only facial shots. Given that this tech hasn’t proven itself able to reliably recognize faces, it seems unlikely it will perform these extra tasks with better accuracy. False positives are guaranteed. And a false Uighur positive in China means citizens will be detained and subjected to a lifetime of brutal punishment just because they happened to trigger a Huawei “alarm.”
According to Huawei, this proposed system has not gone live.
Both companies have acknowledged the document is real. Shortly after this story published Tuesday morning, Huawei spokesman Glenn Schloss said the report “is simply a test and it has not seen real-world application. Huawei only supplies general-purpose products for this kind of testing. We do not provide custom algorithms or applications.”
Maybe this is true. But it’s also the sort of statement a company would release when being pressured by a government to avoid revealing ongoing surveillance programs.
Even if the system isn’t live at the moment, that doesn’t change the fact that it will be live at some point in the future. And the Chinese government will have a tool it can use to target a small percentage of its population — a tool whose ability to recognize faces alone is already questionable. Adding in other factors only increases the possibility of false positives.
Then there’s the mission creep. If it “works” for China, other countries looking to target people for their sex, race, or age will have a tool that’s been field-tested and ready for deployment. China’s not the only authoritarian regime looking for exciting new ways to persecute certain citizens. Following through with development of this tech means Huawei will be the go-to source for countries looking to add to their human rights violation rap sheets.