Internal reports from Chinese technology companies Alibaba and Huawei provide evidence of a disturbing development in facial recognition software that allows authorities to single out and track down minorities via a “Uyghur alarm”.
An investigation into Alibaba’s cloud services by an independent surveillance organization known as the Internet Protocol Video Market (IPVM) discovered a “Uyghur and minority detection” ability. Alibaba’s algorithm houses a ‘face attributes’ variable, with one of the values specified as ‘Is it Uyghur?’. In addition to testing video surveillance on the market, IPVM’s investigations include researching the ethical operations of such technology.
“Facial recognition enables the collection of information that could be used for very nefarious purposes. It’s fundamental to modern oppressive governments or regimes to have surveillance. That is a really important tool in controlling a population,” said Conor Healy, the Political Director at IPVM.
The detection software enables Alibaba’s cloud artificial intelligence (AI) to sift through uploaded photos, videos, and livestreams to automatically recognize a Uyghur face and flag it for review or removal before it has the opportunity to reach a wide scale audience.
IPVM’s most recent reporting on Uyghur tracking exposes a 2018 patent application composed by Huawei and the Chinese government for various devices and systems capable of Uyghur and ethnic minority detection. Huawei responded it should never have included such race identification and “are taking proactive steps to amend it.”
“It’s not a mystery what’s going on. Facial recognition is not something you develop just out of interest or as exercise. They’re very costly and time consuming,” Healy said. “A patent is a legal document describing your invention, and the companies we reported on described their inventions as being capable of specifically detecting Uyghurs.”
In any context, there are limited valid reasons for teaching a computer to identify what race someone is, he said. In the context of China, and their crackdown on Uyghurs and predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, it’s inviting of an entirely new level of concern.
A modern genocide: The ethnic cleansing of the Uyghur people
According to Aisha Bhatia, an avid activist for Uyghur human rights, exhibiting any religious or cultural affiliation, including growing a beard, donning a headscarf, avoidance of alcohol, fasting and praying, or even collection of books on Islam and Uyghur culture is sufficient validation of Islamic extremism, therefore warranting a forcible sendoff to the “re-education” camps.
“Re-education” camps or “job-training” centers are among the euphemisms Chinese officials use to obscure the mass internment of the Uyghur population. The government defends these injustices in the name of regulating and curbing Islamic “extremism” in northwest China. It’s believed that nearly 1 million Uyghurs are detained in these camps and forced to undergo ideology training and Mandarin education. The combination of leaked Communist party documents, drone footage, family interviews of the incarcerated and even testimony of survivors themselves contradict the narrative the regime offers, instead painting a grotesque image of the abuses Uyghurs are subjected to –the practices encapsulate the textbook definition of genocide.
China’s alleged campaign to stifle religious and cultural Uyghur identity epitomize numerous human rights violations, from forced cultural assimilation to involuntary sterilization of Uyghur women in order to control population growth.
“They’re being forced to marry Han Chinese men. They’re forced into sterilization, because [China’s] trying to eradicate a peoples group that are deemed incorrect,” said Audrey Firrone, the communications director for the student-led advocacy organization Free Uyghurs Now.
Twitter recently deleted a tweet from the official account of China’s US embassy after they posted a report from a state-run newspaper with the following caption: “Study shows that in the process of eradicating extremism, the minds of Uyghur women in Xinjiang were emancipated and gender equality and reproductive health were promoted, making them no longer baby-making machines. They are more confident and independent.”
Research reveals that the natural population has dramatically declined in Xinjiang, the territory in northwest China home to the Uyghurs and many other ethnic minorities. Growth rates fell by 84 percent between 2015 and 2018, and have since declined further in 2019. As specified by leaked government documents, refusing to participate in the mandated birth control initiatives satisfies criteria for removal from society and placement into “training” camps. Coupled with the leaked “Asku list” and “Karakax list” (a catalogue consisting of detainees or their family members abroad) referenced by officials responsible for tracking behavior, there is mounting evidence that reinforces the findings of the research.
Chinese officials are granted expansive authority to stop any individual and log their personal information (which include political views, use of birth control, blood type, use of electricity at home, etc.) into an app that ties into a centralized data system known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP). This vetting system serves two purposes: flagging those deemed as potentially threatening and being used as a decider on who gets sent to the re-education camps. People with perfectly lawful behavior are often included in these patterns.
Reports estimate that 80,000 Uyghurs were relocated from Xinjiang to factories across China between 2017 and 2019, with some being transferred directly from the detention camps. At least 82 global household brands ranging from technology to clothing sectors create products using forced Uyghur labor, including Apple, Huawei, Sony, Zara and H&M.
Holding corporations responsible
The conditions they are forced to work under not only stretch the boundaries of labor laws, but entirely violate them, prompting the rise of Free Uyghurs Now and their campaigns of corporate callout.
“We’ve done a lot of corporate callouts. We did a week of callout against Zara because they are a leading perpetrator in forced labor fashion,” said Firrone.
Despite their provocation, Zara continues their claim of innocence regarding where their goods are made. While that particular campaign has yet to yield an ideal response, H&M has expressed reform, she said.
In a statement, they asserted that they “strictly prohibit any type of forced labour” in their supply chain, irrespective of country or region. If evidence alluding to such labor is founded, they would “look to terminate the business relationship” as a consequence. The statement concludes with H&M severing ties with an “indirect business relationship” who have provided “no indication of forced labor”. However, to dispel the allegations, the company decided to phase out the relationship regardless.
Free Uyghur Now has also experienced political success, an outcome of their push for followers to contact elected representatives and senators. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 was passed into law, urging the President to impose “sanctions on foreign individuals and entities” on those responsible for human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region. Most recently, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act passed through the House and proposes prohibiting “certain imports from Xinjiang and imposing sanctions on those responsible for human rights violations there.”
“[The bill] has definitely put more eyes on the fashion industry, and I think that was one of the main pushes with H&M,” said Firrone. “They now have to be aware of where their clothing is coming from.
Actions and consequences
IPVM’s coverage of the “racist” technology being employed to further human rights abuse has also produced enough outrage to motivate change and inspire awareness.
“When the story was published, one of the most notable things that happened associated with that was Antoine Griezmann, the French soccer player who terminated his sponsorship with Huawei. That has caused it to receive a lot of attention,” said Healy.
Alibaba issued a statement as they came under fire, saying they were “dismayed” to learn that Alibaba Cloud “developed a facial recognition technology in a testing environment” that included ethnicity as a criteria for flagging content. The corporation further condemned any efforts of their technology being used to target or identify specific ethnic groups.
IPVM took umbrage with the diplomatic response and provided a counter acknowledgement, insisting that the development of Uyghur detection programs, by definition, requires “targeting specific ethnic groups”, thus rendering the statement as invalid. Further, the service was initially made available on the Alibaba Cloud’s Chinese website exclusively. However, the statement was provided merely in English, with IPVM noting that no similar statement was offered on Chinese platforms.
The general response and increased coverage of Uyghur Muslims, as a result of the reports have been productive, yet surprising, said Healy.
“Part of that took me by surprise because in the context of what is already known about what’s happening in China to Uyghur Muslims, it’s one awful piece in a terrifying tapestry of arguably genocidal actions that are occurring in that country,” he said. “If that helps more people learn about the issues at stake for Uyghurs in China than that’s a good thing. I think people should continue to be paying attention to this because it’s a human tragedy.”
The aforementioned tweet by the Chinese embassy and its removal from Twitter has also generated discussion regarding the efficiency of censoring elite government actors. It’s a double-edged sword, especially considering removing the tweet provided extra coverage, but also suppressed the reach of the actual tweet, said Aisha Bhatia.
“That was the first thing that crossed my mind, so many people learned more just because of that tweet, and then it was blocked from spreading so I don’t know if it’s necessarily a good thing that they took it down to show that it’s wrong,” she said.
According to Firrone, the next steps to advocate for Uyghur liberation on foreign shores are clear: continuing to apply pressure where appropriate and providing coverage is vital. She expressed pride in the soccer players who have spoken out or dropped their contracts and of the outspoken family members of the detainees who risk their family’s life to deliver the facts, she said.
“I look to Uyghur activists like Rushan Abbas, whose sister was just sentenced to 20 years in prison because Rushan speaks out so much for her sister and other Uyghurs,” she said. “I think we need to take a page out of her handbook and say ‘damn the consequences’.”
Momina Tashfeen is a graduate from The Ohio State University, where she earned a bachelor’s in journalism. Previously, she was a reporter for The Lantern, and a writer for Bahath Magazine and Mvslim.com. She also runs a blog - Eunoia.