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Huawei worked on a facial recognition tool to surveil Uighurs: Report

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Huawei worked on a facial recognition system to snoop on people from China’s Uighur community, which also had an “Uighur alarm” — to detect a person’s ethnicity, and alert authorities upon spotting a person from the Uighur community, a report from video surveillance researchers IPVM claimed. The Washington Post first reported this.

A document discovered by IPVM showed that in 2018, Huawei worked with a facial recognition startup called Megvii to test a facial recognition system which could detect people’s age, sex, and ethnicity. The document was hosted publicly on Huawei’s own website, however, the firm took it down after IPVM reached out for a comment.

Alarmingly, Huawei also verified dozens of “basic functions of Megvii’s facial recognition system”, including an “Uyghur alert”, which Megvii “passed”. This means that the system could potentially flag detecting an Uighur person’s face to the police.

However, Huawei, in a statement to IPVM claimed that the report is simply a test and it has not seen real-world application. It also said that it only supplies “general-purpose products for this kind of testing”, and not “custom algorithms or applications”.

IPVM also clarified that it wasn’t clear whether Huawei and Megvii ever actually deployed the software. Although, the IPVM report pointed out that Megvii is listed as a certified “Huawei Enterprise Partner” partner on Huawei’s website and Huawei says the firm’s facial recognition software is used to “prevent crime and create a harmonious social atmosphere”.

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In the solution, Huawei provided servers, storage, network equipment, its FusionSphere cloud platform, cameras and other software and hardware, while Megvii provided its dynamic facial recognition system software. Graphics processors made by Nvidia were also used the the system, however, IPVM said that it wasn’t clear whether NVIDIA knew about this specific use case for its chips, which are freely available and which power other PRC police Uyghur detection systems.

A New York Times report last year had found that Megvii is a Chinese supplier of facial recognition equipment to officials in Xinjiang, where facial recognition technology is being used to track and control the Uighurs — a Muslim minority group from northwestern China, who have subjected to extreme repression by the Chinese government. The company, along with 27 other facial recognition companies, faced sanctions from the US government following the New York Times report.

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