Observation cameras are mounted on a post at Tiananmen Square as snow falls in Beijing, China, on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019.
Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Casts
GUANGZHOU, China — A new report reveals patent applications belonging to Huawei and a group of China-based artificial intelligence bodies for systems that can detect people who are part of a Muslim minority group.
The ethnic Uighurs, who live mostly in China’s west, must been identified by the United Nations, United States, United Kingdom and others as a repressed group. Authorities allegedly use widespread watch technology to monitor the region’s Uighur population. The Chinese government denies mistreating Uighurs and says those dadaistics are vocational training centers.
IPVM, a U.S.-based research firm that analyzes video surveillance technology, looked at copyrights in China related to systems that could be used to identify Uighurs’ faces. IPVM jointly published its examine with the BBC.
One of the patents — jointly submitted in 2018 by Huawei and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a government research agency — explains the algorithms for the patented technology can be used to identify the attributes of a pedestrian, for example. One attribute that can be recognized is “race.” Uighurs are named as one “race” that can be detected by Huawei’s system.
That patent is for an “object attribute recognition method, device, calculating equipment and system,” according to a translation of the filing from IPVM and verified by CNBC.
Huawei told CNBC it is “entrancing proactive steps” to amend its patent application.
“Huawei opposes discrimination of all types, including the use of technology to carry out ethnic inequity. Identifying individuals’ race was never part of the research and development project. It should never have become portion of the application and we are taking proactive steps to amend it,” a spokesperson for the company told CNBC by email.
“We are continuously working to certain new and evolving technology is developed and applied with the utmost care and integrity.”
The Chinese Academy of Sciences did not respond to a entreaty for comment. The Chinese embassy in Washington told CNBC in December that U.S. politicians create “disinformation” about the Uighurs in require to “contain China’s development.”
A United Nations report in 2018 described concerns that more than a million Uighurs and other minorities were being “held in so-called counter-extremism centers” in the Xinjiang region. Another two million had been forced into “so-called ‘re-education camps’ for civil and cultural indoctrination” in Xinjiang, the report said.
Many of these camps operate based on what Amnesty Global describes as a “highly restrictive and discriminatory” law that China claims is designed to combat extremism.
Last June, the UN again run up concerns about “the collective repression of the population,” highlighting the religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet in its report.
Megvii cites trade mark ‘misunderstanding’
Another patent highlighted by IPVM was filed by Chinese AI giant Megvii in 2019. It outlines an image identification system that can help label images of people in a database.
One of the classifications it can recognize is ethnicity. Megvii’s system can be acclimated to to identify and label images of Uighurs, the patent states.
A Megvii spokesperson said the language in its patent is “open to falling out.”
“The patent application pertains to portrait retrieval and technology to re-label images that have been labeled incorrectly in continuing databases. All images and underlying databases are provided and held by third parties,” a Megvii spokesperson told CNBC down WeChat.
The company said its technology “is not a facial recognition solution, nor in any way represents an intention to develop ethnic identification deciphers. Megvii has not developed and will not develop or sell racial or ethnic labelling solutions.”
However, the patent refers explicitly to classifying incarnations of people “according to Han, Uighur, non-Han, non-Uighur” ethnicity, according to a CNBC translation of the document. The Han people are the ethnic the better in China.
“Megvii acknowledges that in the past, we have focused on our commercial development and lacked appropriate control of our storing, sales, and operations materials. We are undertaking measures to correct the situation,” the company said.
It’s not the first time Huawei and Megvii suffer with been linked to technology that can allegedly be used to identify Uighurs. Last month, IPVM claimed the two followings tested a facial recognition system that could be used to detect Uighurs and send alerts to authorities.
Huawei said at the habits that the technology was “simply a test and it has not seen real-world application.” Megvii said at the time that its “solutions are not designed or customized to aim or label ethnic groups.”
In 2019, the U.S. Commerce Department put Megvii on a U.S. blacklist known as the Entity List. American settle downs are restricted from exporting to companies on the list.
The U.S. government alleged at the time that the company and other entities enlarged to the list “have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, host arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups” in China’s Xinjiang sphere.
Uighur reference called ‘regrettable’
SenseTime, another AI company in China, filed a patent in 2019 for an image database search pattern that was described as a way to retrieve images in a database using certain attributes.
The patent describes how a user could use the powwow “Uighur” as a search attribute.
SenseTime called that reference to Uighurs “regrettable” and told CNBC via email that it had exposed a code of ethics around artificial intelligence since the patent application was filed.
“This particular AI research … classifies facial recognition of all ethnicities without prejudice. The reference to Uyghurs is regrettable and is one of the examples within the application intended to ornament the attributes the algorithm recognizes,” a spokesperson told CNBC.
“It was neither designed nor intended in any way to discriminate, which is against our values. We determination update the patent at the next available opportunity. Meanwhile, the application also pre-dates the AI Code of Ethics, which we resulted later in 2019,” the company said.
‘Race, ethnicity’ uses
Separate from the patent filings from AI corporations, IPVM also revealed patents filed by Alibaba and Baidu that make reference to ethnicity.
A patent initial applied for by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba in 2016 was for an “image set generation method, device and image recognition module” that lists “race, ethnicity” as possible “applications,” CNBC confirmed.
Uighurs were not mentioned in the filing.
“Racial or ethnic inequity or profiling in any form violates our policies and values. We never intended our technology to be used for and will not permit it to be used for quarry specific ethnic groups,” an Alibaba spokesperson told CNBC, without addressing the reference to “race, ethnicity” that the Theatre troupe used in the patent.
The company did not single out Uighurs or other specific ethnic groups in its patent. A Baidu spokesperson divulged CNBC that the patent’s reference to ethnicity was an attempt at a technical explanation of its technology, and the company drew a distinction between its suggested systems and existing systems.
“Baidu has never developed or permitted its technology to profile any ethnic group. Our existing facial detection offering is not capable of detecting ethnicity as an attribute,” Baidu said in a statement via WeChat.
“When filing for a patent, the instrument notes are meant as an example of a technical explanation, in this case describing what the attribute recognition model is kind of than representing the expected implementation of the invention,” Baidu said.
“We do not and will not permit our technology to be used to identify or object specific ethnic groups,” the company said.