China’s Huawei Testing AI Software That Could Identify Uyghurs: Report

The logo of the Chinese company Huawei in its main offices in the UK on January 28, 2020.

Daniel Leal-Olivas | AFP via Getty Images

GUANGZHOU, China – Huawei partnered with one of China’s largest artificial intelligence (AI) companies, Megvii, to test a facial recognition system that can identify members of a Muslim minority group and send alerts to authorities, a new report said.

The ethnic minority Uyghurs are an oppressed Muslim group who are frequently attacked by the Chinese government and live mainly in the western region of Xinjiang.

An official 2018 document from the two Chinese companies showed that Huawei had tested Megvii’s software on its video cloud infrastructure. The document was discovered by IPVM, a US-based research company focused on video surveillance analytics. IPVM shared its discovery with the Washington Post, which became the first media organization to report its content on Tuesday.

The test was conducted to see if Huawei’s hardware was compatible with Megvii’s facial recognition software, the IPVM report said. Huawei provided hardware such as cameras, servers and cloud computing infrastructure, while Megvii provided the software.

As part of the study, a function called “Uighur Alarm” was tested. Another feature of the software, according to the IPVM report, was the ability to determine “ethnicity” as part of its “facial attribute analysis”.

“Uighur Alert”

A function like the “Uighur warning” could be used, according to the IPVM, to report a member of the minority to authorities.

“Systems like Megvii are built into the Huawei system, so information and alarms (like Uyghurs) are generated by Megvii and then sent to the Huawei system for monitors (e.g. police) to check and act on John Honovich, president of IPVM, told CNBC via email as he explained the potential functionality of the Uyghur Alert feature.

Huawei and Megvii collaboration on Uyghur alarms also proves that many large Chinese video surveillance / facial recognition companies are deeply involved in Uyghur suppression.

John Honovich

President, IPVM

It is another tool in the arsenal of the Chinese authorities who used technology to crack down on the Muslim minority. The New York Times reported last year that facial recognition was used to track Uyghurs and keep an eye on their movements.

IPVM found the document marked as “confidential” by Huawei and Megvii via a Google search. It was uploaded to the Huawei website but has since been removed.

“Huawei and Megvii ‘s collaboration on Uyghur alarms also proves that many large Chinese video surveillance / facial recognition companies are deeply involved in Uyghur repression. Anyone doing business with these companies should be aware,” concluded the Honovich author IPVM report.

Huawei, Megvii answer

Neither Huawei nor Megvii contested the accuracy of the document uncovered by IPVM.

A Huawei spokesman pointed out to CNBC that the company made a comment to IPVM that it said the system had not been used in a real-world scenario.

“This report is just a test and has not been used in practice,” the statement said. “Huawei only provides general-purpose products for this type of test. We do not offer custom algorithms or applications.”

“Huawei operates in accordance with the laws and regulations of all countries and regions in which we operate,” it continues, “and only offers ICT (information and communication technology) products and solutions that meet recognized industry standards.”

Huawei declined to answer any further questions about the report.

Megvii told CNBC that “solutions were not designed or tailored for ethnic groups”.

“Our business is focused on the welfare and safety of individuals rather than monitoring specific demographics,” a Megvii spokesman said.

US government allegations

IPVM’s Honovich noted via email that ethnicity makes facial recognition difficult from a technical point of view.

“We remain skeptical of the accuracy of ethnic recognition, whether Uyghurs or otherwise, even in perfect conditions, which real-world conditions for surveillance cameras (poor angles, poor lighting, long distances, etc.) make it worse,” he said.

It is not the first time that China’s technology firms have been implicated in Uyghur surveillance. Last year the USA put 28 organizations on the so-called Entity List. American firms are not allowed to do business with companies on this blacklist, which include some of the Chinese AI champions such as Megvii, SenseTime, Hikvision and Iflytek.

Washington alleged that “these units were implicated in human rights abuses and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, arbitrary mass detention and high-tech surveillance against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other members of Muslim minority groups” in China’s Xinjiang region.

Uses US Technology, Says Report

According to IPVM, the document revealed that US semiconductor giant Nvidia powered the joint surveillance system Megvii and Huawei with its Tesla P4 GPU chip.

The report found that it was unclear whether Nvidia knew what its chips were being used for. Nvidia didn’t respond to a request for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Last month, the New York Times reported that chips from Intel and Nvidia were used to power computers that could process and view surveillance footage and were part of the Chinese surveillance of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

On Tuesday, US Senator Marco Rubio and US Representative Jim McGove sent letters to the CEOs of Intel and Nvidia in response to the NYT story. Lawmakers asked companies if they knew how their technology was being used and if they had taken any steps to ensure that their chips “were not being used for human rights abuses or to endanger US national security”.

Nvidia and Intel were not immediately available for comments when asked about these letters.

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