Report: China’s Alibaba Group Admits It Made a ‘Uyghur Alert’ Facial Recognition System

A man watches as a visitor tries out a facial recognition display at a booth for Chinese tech firm Ping'an Technology at the Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) in Beijing, Thursday, April 26, 2018. The GMIC features current and future trends in the mobile Internet industry by some major foreign …
Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, the Chinese company that runs the major online marketplace of the same name, admitted on Thursday that it had developed software that identifies individuals as members of China’s ethnic Uyghur minority solely using images of their faces.

The revelation occurred a week after reports surfaced that Huawei, another multinational Chinese company with close ties to the Communist Party, had also developed facial recognition technology to help police and Party authorities identify Uyghurs by sight, dubbed a “Uyghur alert” system.

The Uyghur ethnic minority, most of whom are Muslims, largely reside in Xinjiang, China’s largest province. The Communist Party has built more than 1,000 concentration camps throughout Xinjiang to house members of the community. The most recent estimates place the number of Uyghurs trapped in concentration camps at about two million.

Outside of the camps, a study published this week revealed that another half-million Uyghurs are being forced to work onerous hours picking cotton, later sold worldwide through clothing made by recognizable multinational brands.

Alibaba admitted it possessed the software on Thursday but claimed executives had no idea they had it. Executives were “dismayed to learn” the technology existed, a statement published Thursday read.

“We do not and will not permit our technology to be used to target or identify specific ethnic groups,” Alibaba promised, adding that it did not believe the product had ever been sold to a client, only used in a “testing environment.”

Alibaba issued its statement following revelations made by the research firm IPVM, an American organization, according to the Guardian.

“The technology could be used to identify videos filmed and uploaded by a Uighur person, flagging them for authorities to respond to or take down,” according to the Guardian, which added:

According to IPVM’s research, Alibaba’s Chinese website showed clients – the websites that might buy Alibaba’s software – how they could use the tech feature, built into the cloud service, to identify ethnic minorities. It included a step-by-step guide and was specifically targeted to search for Uighurs.

The clients could use the service by sending in photos of individuals, and the system would “flag” the photo if it believed the person in it was part of the Uyghur ethnic group.

The ethnic identification service was part of a product called “Cloud Shield,” which would allegedly recognize “text, pictures, videos, and voices containing pornography, politics, violent terrorism, advertisements, and spam, and provides verification, marking, custom configuration and other capabilities.”

In a report last week, IPVM identified a similar system developed by Huawei. Huawei’s version of the “Uyghur alarm,” according to the American firm, would notify policy if security cameras identified Uyghur people present within sight. According to IPVM, at least 12 Chinese police departments have activated the Uyghur identification program.

IPVM corroborated its research by noting that it had obtained documents signed by officials within Huawei, some of whom appeared publicly on Huawei’s website, labeled “confidential.”

According to the Washington Post, Huawei and its partner company, Megvii, like Alibaba, claimed that the product in question had no “real-world application” and that ethnic facial recognition technology had been used as “simply a test” of what their products could do.

Under Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has greatly expanded its repressive activities against the Uyghur people, most prominently through the establishment of concentration camps. The few who have survived the camps and testified of their experiences say Party officials there force Uyghurs to learn Mandarin, sing songs worshipping Xi Jinping, and renounce Islam through actions such as eating pork. Many say they were subject to extreme torture, including electroshock torture and rape, and that women are systematically sterilized, forced to abort their children, or have their infants killed. Some said they were subject to medical testing consistent with live organ harvesting.

Outside of the camps, a report scholar Adrian Zenz published this week revealed that upwards of half a million Uyghurs were being forced to pick cotton for little to no pay. The Communist Party, Zenz wrote, used mobile phone applications to identify vulnerable Uyghurs it could place in “poverty alleviation” cotton-picking programs; party officials would spy on families in Uyghur territories and relay information to their superiors used to choose individuals to do the work.

“A key goal is to keep minorities occupied and surveilled,” Zenz stated, continuing:

Factory workers who work and live on secure compounds with dormitories live in environments that are more easily controlled by the state than pastoralists or farmers. Placing minorities into full-time wage labor has become a cornerstone of the state’s coercive social re-engineering project.

Human rights activists say that the mounting evidence of abuses against the Uyghur people suggests a campaign of genocide – an attempt to erase their existence. The International Criminal Court (ICC), the tribunal for processing accusations of genocide, dismissed a complaint against China this week, stating the Communist Party was not a signatory to the Rome statute that created the ICC, so it has no jurisdiction on the matter.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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