Alibaba facial recognition tech can identify Uighurs: Report

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd has facial recognition technology that can specifically pick out members of China’s Uighur minority, says IPVM report.

A sign warning against 'uncivilized behavior' is displayed as spectators watch a street performance in the main bazaar in Urumqi, Xinjiang autonomous region in 2018 [File: Bloomberg]

Technology giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd has facial recognition technology that can specifically pick out members of China’s Uighur minority, surveillance industry researcher IPVM said in a report.

The report comes as human rights groups accuse China of forcing more than one million Muslim Uighurs into labour camps, and calls out firms suspected of complicity.

An Alibaba Cloud spokeswoman said the technology was only confined to testing. “The ethnicity mention refers to a feature/function that was used within a testing environment during an exploration of our technical capability. It was never used outside the testing environment.”

China has repeatedly denied forcing anyone into what it has called vocational training centres, and has also said the region of Xinjiang is under threat from “extremist” forces.

Still, sensitivities have prompted caution among Chinese internet firms which often self-censor to avoid running afoul of a government that strictly controls online speech, and which last month published draft rules to police livestreaming.

The United States-based IPVM, in a report published on Wednesday, said the software capable of identifying Uighurs appears in Alibaba’s Cloud Shield content moderation service for websites.

Alibaba describes Cloud Shield as a system that “detects and recognises text, pictures, videos, and voices containing pornography, politics, violent terrorism, advertisements, and spam, and provides verification, marking, custom configuration and other capabilities”.

An archived record of the technology shows it can perform such tasks as “glasses inspection”, “smile detection”, whether the subject is “ethnic” and, specifically, “Is it Uighur”.

Consequently, if a Uighur livestreams a video on a website signed up to Cloud Shield, the software can detect that the user is Uighur and flag the video for review or removal, IPVM researcher Charles Rollet told Reuters news agency.

IPVM said the mention of Uighurs in the software disappeared near the time it published its report.

Alibaba is listed on both the New York and Hong Kong stock exchanges. It is the biggest cloud computing vendor in China and the fourth worldwide, showed data from researcher Canalys.

Earlier this month, US lawmakers sent letters to Intel Corp and Nvidia Corp following reports of their computer chips being used in the surveillance of Uighurs.

Source: Reuters