Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei tested facial recognition software that could identify minority Uyghur individuals and automatically send alerts to local authorities of their presence, according to a report obtained by The Washington Post. The document reportedly shows that in 2018 Huawei worked with Megvii, one of China’s leading facial recognition startups, to test an AI-powered camera system that could attempt to identify the age, sex and ethnicity of people in a crowd. When it detected the face of an Uyghur individual, it would reportedly trigger an “Uyghur alarm” and alert police in China.
The Uyghurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnic group. There are approximately 11 million Uyghurs currently in China, with the majority living in the country’s northern Xinjiang province. As of 2018, it’s believed the Chinese Communist Party had apprehended between 800,000 and 2 million Uyghurs and relocated them to “reeducation centers” where it had forced them to go through a brutal indoctrination process that reportedly involved torture and sexual abuse.
With help from a research organization called IPVM, The Washington Post found the report detailing the system on Hauwei’s website. The company subsequently took the document down after the two asked for comment — though the company did acknowledge the existence of the report. A spokesperson for Huawei 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." According to the document, Huawei provided the servers, cameras and computing infrastructure that underpinned the test. The Washington Post was unable to verify whether any of the three facial recognition systems Huawei and Megvii currently provide in China employ the technology the two developed in 2018.
The report underscores a potential worst-case scenario when it comes to facial recognition. Experts have been warning about the pitfalls of the technology for years, including its propensity to misidentify minorities and people of color. Even if the system was only a test, Huawei’s actions are likely to cause further distrust of the company in the West. On supposedly national security grounds, network operators are banned from buying 5G equipment from the company in a number of countries, including the US and Australia, and other English-speaking countries like Canada and the UK are considering restrictions as well.