Huawei tests facial recognition system to track ethnic minorities, send 'Uighur alerts' to Chinese authorities

Chinese tech giant Huawei has tested facial recognition software to identify and track China's persecuted Uighur minority group, according to a report discovered by video surveillance authority IPVM.

A document signed by Huawei representatives - discovered on Huawei's website by IPVM and shared with The Washington Post - showed the company collaborated with facial recognition start-up Megvii in 2018. The two tech firms tested an artificial-intelligence (AI) camera system, capable of scanning faces in a crowd and approximating people's age, gender and ethnicity. The document was later removed.

As reported by The Washington Post, the software could send an automated 'Uighur alarm' to government authorities when the AI system detects a person of the Muslim minority group. The alert would potentially flag the individual for Chinese police to investigate, The Washington Post said. 

Uighurs have faced longstanding discrimination and repression from the Chinese government. As part of a violent crackdown, members of the minority group have been detained without charge within a covert network of detention camps in the Xinjiang province, with inmates allegedly subjected to torture and abuse.

Since 2017, credible estimates suggest around 1 million Uighurs have been relocated to the detention system. Chinese officials have frequently denied the existence of the camps, and have previously labelled them as voluntary re-education schools for anti-extremism training.

Last year, a New York Times report identified a number of Chinese facial recognition companies developing algorithms to identify Uighurs. Although Megvii has previously been connected to the technology, the report found by IPVM is the first indication that Huawei could be actively building the software.

John Honovich, the founder of IPVM, told The Washington Post the Huawei document showed how "terrifying" and "totally normalised" the discriminatory technology has become.

"This is not one isolated company. This is systematic," Honovich said. "A lot of thought went into making sure this 'Uighur alarm' works."

Shortly after The Washington Post's story was published this week, Huawei spokesman Glenn Schloss described the software as "simply a test" that has "not seen real-world application". A Megvii spokesman also came forward and said the systems are not designed to target ethnic groups.