3 min read

A global debate regarding the sale of facial recognition tech to the government has been ongoing for quite some time now. It is largely over the concern that government tracking public’s every move will hamper public privacy and develop a constant fear of being watched among the citizens. It will also provide the government an unfair ability to target immigrants, religious minorities, people of color & ethnicity.

Giant tech firms such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Google have already gone under the scanner due to the opposition faced by rights groups and public rights organizations. These groups have been urging tech companies to reconsider the consequences that can emerge after selling the facial recognition tech to the government.

Although it still remains a debate between the U.S. tech firms, government, and the citizens, it appears to be set in action across China. China apparently is using facial recognition tech to keep a track on around 11 million Uighurs, a Muslim minority, for the purposes of ‘search and review’.

China has already been chastised globally for detaining nearly one million members of these Muslim ethnic minorities in indoctrination camps in its western region Xinjiang. Paul Mozur, Asia tech correspondent with the New York Times, published an article, shedding light on the harsh reality of this privacy-hampering practice. It’s the first known example of facial recognition being used intentionally by a government to racially profile and a massive ethical leap for A.I”, writes Mozur.

The facial recognition tech looks out for Uighurs on the basis of their appearance and keeps a tab on their day to day activities. This practice which was earlier only ongoing in the west Xinjiang (home for Uighurs), to track people’s DNA, is now being implemented in other parts of China. Earlier this year, law enforcement in the central Chinese city of Sanmenxia had a facial recognition system that tracked whether its residents were Uighurs or not about 500,000 times in a month.

Also, law enforcement at the central province of Shaanxi aimed to acquire a smart camera system in 2018 that would identify Uighur/non-Uighur attributes. Generally, facial recognition tech tracks people on the basis of skin color and face shapes. However, China’s facial surveillance, with the help of tech startups, have managed to classify people based on ‘social definition’ of race or ethnicity with the new ‘minority recognition’ feature. Chinese AI companies to aid with the software include Yitu, Megvii, SenseTime, and CloudWalk.

With the help of machine learning, engineers feed thousands of labeled images of Uighurs and non-Uighurs to train the systems to recognize the pattern, which in turn, helps distinguish between different ethnic groups. Claire Garvie, an associate at center on privacy and tech at Georgetown Law, told New York Times, “If you make a technology that can classify people by ethnicity, someone will use it to repress that ethnicity.”

Additionally, a face-image database has been set up for people with criminal records, mental illnesses, history of drug abuse, and those who have petitioned the government over grievances. A national database of criminals includes about 300,000 faces, and people with a history of drug use totals 8,000 faces, in the city of Wenzhou.

Just last month, an analyst at Tencent & WeChat, Matthew Brennan, tweeted a video of a facial recognition kiosk at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport in the People’s Republic of China that went viral. The video showed kiosk giving Brennan personalized flight information after scanning his face within a fraction of seconds. According to Jonathan Frankle, an A.I. researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this practice by China is a major threat to its democracy and an ‘urgent crisis’.

Critics have labeled China negatively for its gladiatorial show of tech-enabled authoritarianism and power over Uighurs.

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