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Huawei worked on facial recognition system to surveil Uighurs, new report claims

Including an ‘Uighur alert’ feature

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Huawei worked on a facial recognition system to monitor and track China’s Uighur minority, according to a new report from video surveillance researchers at IPVM.

First reported by The Washington Post, the report draws on documents posted publicly to Huawei’s website, obtained via Google search. The facial recognition project appears to have been a demonstration of how Huawei hardware could be used to employ partner algorithms from a Chinese vendor called Megvii.

IPVM’s report particularly highlights the “Uighur Alert” feature, which would use facial recognition to identify a subject’s ethnicity and generate an alert if the subject belonged to China’s Uighur minority group.

A Muslim minority group from northwestern China, Uighurs are subject to intense political repression by the Chinese government, making efforts to identify and track them particularly dangerous. Since 2017, at least 1 million Uighurs have been relocated to a network of detention camps in the Xinjiang province, where they are forced to submit to indoctrination programs. China has historically denied the existence of the camps, although satellite imagery confirms their existence.

A New York Times report in 2019 identified a number of Chinese facial recognition companies building algorithms to identify Uighurs, some of which have faced US sanctions in the months since the report. But while Megvii had previously been linked to Uighur recognition systems, this is the first indication that Huawei may be actively developing and promoting such a product.

Huawei did not respond for a request for comment.