Home Business China’s Huawei tested AI software that could identify Uighurs: Report

China’s Huawei tested AI software that could identify Uighurs: Report

The logo of Chinese company Huawei at its main U.K. offices on January 28, 2020.

Daniel Leal-Olivas | AFP via Getty Images

GUANGZHOU, China — Huawei, together with one of China’s biggest artificial intelligence (AI) firms Megvii, tested a facial recognition system that could be used to detect members of a minority Muslim group and send alerts to authorities, a new report claims.

The ethnic minority Uighurs are a repressed Muslim group often targeted by the Chinese government, who mostly live in the western region of Xinjiang.

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

The test was carried out to see if Huawei’s hardware is 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, it added.

As part of the trial, a feature called “Uyghur alert” was tested. Another feature of the software was able to determine “ethnicity” as part of its “face attribute analysis,” according to the report by IPVM.

‘Uyghur alert’

A feature like the “Uyghur alert” could be used to flag a member of the minority group to authorities, according to IPVM.

“Systems like Megvii are integrated into the Huawei system so that information and alarms (like on Uyghurs) are generated by Megvii and then sent into the Huawei system so that the monitors (e.g., police) can review and respond,” John Honovich, president of IPVM, told CNBC via email, when he explained the potential functionality of the “Uyghur alert” feature.

Huawei and Megvii’s collaboration on Uyghur alarms further proves that many large Chinese video surveillance/face recognition companies are deeply implicated in Uyghur repression.

John Honovich

president, IPVM

Huawei, Megvii respond

Neither Huawei nor Megvii denied the veracity of the document uncovered by IPVM.

A Huawei spokesperson pointed CNBC to a comment the company gave to IPVM, in which it said the system has not been used in a real-world scenario.

“This report is simply a test and it has not seen real-world application,” the statement said. “Huawei only supplies general-purpose products for this kind of testing. We do not provide custom algorithms or applications.”

“Huawei operates in compliance with the laws and regulations of all countries and regions where we operate,” the statement continued, “and only provides ICT (information and communications technology) products and solutions that meet recognized industry standards.”

Huawei declined to answer further questions on the report.

Megvii told CNBC its “solutions are not designed or customized to target or label ethnic groups.”

“Our business is focused on the well-being and safety of individuals, not about monitoring any particular demographic groups,” a Megvii spokesperson said.

U.S. government allegations

U.S. technology used, report says