China's Alibaba 'dismayed' by Uighur facial-recognition software

China’s Alibaba ‘dismayed’ by Uighur facial-recognition software


Shanghai: Chinese technology giant Alibaba is trying to keep away from others the facial recognition software designed by its cloud computing department, which can help users identify Uighur Muslims in the country.

A report this week revealed the functionality of the software, making Alibaba, one of the most valuable companies in the world, the latest Chinese corporate entity to be involved in China’s treatment of Uighurs.

In a statement posted online late Thursday, Alibaba said it was “dismayed to learn” that Alibaba Cloud developed the feature.

The technology was used only in for capability-testing and not deployed by any customer, Alibaba said, adding that it had “eliminated any ethnic tag” in its products.

“We do not and will not permit our technology to be used to target or identify specific ethnic groups,” it said.

The Uighur issue looms as a worrying threat for Chinese companies as global criticism grows over Beijing’s policies in the northwest region of Xinjiang.

Human rights groups say as many as one million Uighurs and other mainly Muslim minorities are being held in detention camps there.

Beijing initially denied the existence of camps, but now calls them vocational training centers designed to provide alternatives to religious extremism.

Chinese Uighurs are Turkic Muslims who have been angry at China’s control for decades, and this anger periodically erupts into deadly violence.

In recent years, with the application of facial recognition technology and other technologies across the province, Xinjiang’s surveillance expenditure has increased sharply.

Washington blacklisted eight Chinese technology companies last year on the grounds that these companies were related to surveillance.

Last week, IPVM, a US-based surveillance research company, said that Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has participated in testing facial recognition software that can send an alert to the police when it recognizes a Uyghur face.

Huawei denied the claim.

But the controversy caused Barcelona’s World Cup-winning French football star Antoine Griezmann to sever an endorsement deal with Huawei.

Alibaba is the leader in China’s huge e-commerce sector, projecting a sunny image to the world epitomised by globe-trotting founder and billionaire former chairman Jack Ma.

It has also moved into cloud computing, bricks-and-mortar retail and delivery services, as well as an overseas expansion.

The Trump administration has imposed an escalating series of US sanctions against Huawei over alleged digital collusion with Chinese state security and has hinted at applying pressure on other companies, possibly including Alibaba. 

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