Surveillance cameras are mounted on a pole in Tiananmen Square as snow falls in Beijing, China on Thursday February 14, 2019.
Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images
GUANGZHOU, China – A new report reveals patent applications by Huawei and a group of China-based artificial intelligence companies for systems capable of detecting people who are part of a Muslim minority group.
Ethnic Uyghurs, who live mainly in western China, have been identified by the United Nations, the United States, the United Kingdom and others as a suppressed group. Authorities reportedly used widespread surveillance technology to monitor the region’s Uyghur population. The Chinese government denies having mistreated the Uyghurs and claims that these camps are vocational training centers.
IPVM, an American research company that analyzes video surveillance technology, examined patents in China related to systems that could be used to identify the faces of Uyghurs. IPVM published its research jointly with the BBC.
One of the patents – submitted jointly in 2018 by Huawei and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a government research agency – states that the algorithms of the patented technology can be used to identify attributes of a pedestrian, for example. One attribute that can be recognized is “race”. Uyghurs are referred to as a “race” which can be detected by Huawei’s system.
This patent relates to a “method of recognizing object attributes, a device, a computer equipment and a system”, according to a translation of the IPVM deposit and verified by CNBC.
Huawei told CNBC it is “taking proactive steps” to amend its patent application.
“Huawei opposes discrimination of all types, including the use of technology to practice ethnic discrimination. Identifying the race of individuals has never been part of the research and development project. It should never have been part of the app and we are taking proactive steps to change, ”a company spokesperson told CNBC via email.
“We are continually working to ensure that new and evolving technologies are developed and applied with the utmost care and integrity.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences did not respond to a request for comment. The Chinese Embassy in Washington told CNBC in December that US politicians are creating “disinformation” about Uyghurs in order to “contain the development of China.”
A United Nations report released in 2018 raised concerns that more than a million Uyghurs and other minorities were “being held in so-called counter-extremism centers” in the Xinjiang region. Another two million people were forced to take refuge in “so-called” re-education camps “for political and cultural indoctrination” in Xinjiang, according to the report.
Many of these camps operate on the basis of what Amnesty International describes as a “highly restrictive and discriminatory” law that China claims is designed to combat extremism.
Last June, the UN reiterated its concerns about “the collective repression of the population”, highlighting the religious and ethnic minorities of Xinjiang and Tibet in its report.
Megvii cites patent ‘misunderstanding’
Another patent highlighted by IPVM was filed by Chinese AI giant Megvii in 2019. It describes an image recognition system that can help tag images of people in a database.
One of the classifications he can recognize is ethnicity. Megvii’s system can be used to identify and label images of Uyghurs, the patent says.
A spokesperson for Megvii said the wording of its patent was “susceptible to misunderstanding”.
“The patent application relates to portrait recovery and technology to relabel images that have been improperly labeled in existing databases. All images and underlying databases are provided and owned by third parties a Megvii spokesperson told CNBC via WeChat.
The company has stated that its technology “is not a facial recognition solution, nor does it in any way represent an intention to develop ethnic identification solutions. Megvii has not developed and will not develop or sell any facial recognition solutions. ‘racial or ethnic labeling’.
However, the patent explicitly refers to classifying images of people “according to Han, Uyghur, non-Han, non-Uyghur ethnicity,” according to a CNBC translation of the document. The Han people are the ethnic majority in China.
“Megvii recognizes that in the past we have focused on our business development and lacked proper control over our marketing, sales and operating materials. We are taking steps to correct the situation,” the company said.
This is not the first time Huawei and Megvii have been linked with technology that can allegedly be used to identify Uyghurs. Last month, IPVM claimed that the two companies tested a facial recognition system that could be used to detect Uyghurs and send alerts to authorities.
Huawei said at the time that the technology was “just a test and had not seen any real-world application.” Megvii said at the time that its “solutions are not designed or customized to target or label ethnic groups.”
In 2019, the US Department of Commerce put Megvii on a US blacklist known as the Entity List. US companies are not allowed to export to companies on the list.
The US government alleged at the time that the company and other entities added to the list “had been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of the campaign of repression, detention mass arbitrariness and high-tech surveillance against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups “in China’s Xinjiang region.
Uyghur reference described as “ regrettable ”
SenseTime, another AI company in China, filed a patent in 2019 for an image database search system that has been described as a way to retrieve images from a database using some attributes.
The patent describes how a user can use the word “Uyghur” as a search attribute.
SenseTime called this reference to Uyghurs “regrettable” and told CNBC via email that it had developed a code of ethics around artificial intelligence since the patent application was filed.
“This particular research on AI … includes facial recognition of all ethnicities without prejudice. The reference to Uyghurs is unfortunate and is one of the examples of the application intended to illustrate the attributes that the algorithm recognizes.” , a spokesperson told CNBC.
“It was neither designed nor intended in any way to discriminate, which is contrary to our values. We will update the patent at the next available opportunity. Meanwhile, the application also predates the code of ethics of AI, which we developed later in 2019, ”the company said.
Uses of “ race, ethnicity ”
Apart from patent filings from AI companies, IPVM has also revealed patents filed by Alibaba and Baidu that refer to ethnicity.
A patent first filed by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba in 2016 related to a “method of generating image sets, a device and image recognition module” that includes “race, ethnicity” applications, “confirmed CNBC.
The Uyghurs were not mentioned in the file.
“Racial or ethnic discrimination or profiling in any form violates our policies and values. We never intended our technology to be used and we will not allow it to be used to target specific ethnic groups.” an Alibaba spokesperson told CNBC, without responding to the reference to “race, ethnicity” that the company used in the patent.
Chinese search giant Baidu filed a patent in 2018 for an image recognition system. Ethnicity is one of the attributes that his proposed system can recognize.
The company did not identify Uyghurs or other specific ethnic groups in its patent. A Baidu spokesperson told CNBC that the patent’s reference to ethnicity was an attempt at a technical explanation of its technology, and the company distinguished between its proposed systems and existing systems.
“Baidu has never developed or allowed its technology to profile an ethnic group. Our existing facial recognition offering is unable to detect ethnicity as an attribute,” Baidu said in a statement via WeChat.
“When filing for a patent, the document notes are meant to be an example of a technical explanation, in this case describing what the attribute recognition model is rather than representing the expected implementation of the invention, ”Baidu said.
“We do not and will not allow our technology to be used to identify or target specific ethnic groups,” the company said.