Monday, May 20, 2024

China tracks own Muslims through AI; monitors everything they do

From meditation classes to public transportation, to buying a cellphone, facial recognition has become an indispensable part of everyday life in China. But the rapid developments made by the Chinese government in the artificial intelligence sector has fuelled gross human rights violations against the ethnic and religious minorities, especially Muslims and Uighurs.

Uighurs are repressed Muslim groups that are often targeted by the Chinese government and mostly live in the western region of Xinjiang.

China is supposedly utilizing artificial intelligence to screen its minority Muslim population. Chinese experts are utilizing a boundless and secret facial recognition framework to follow the Uighurs.

Alibaba Holding Ltd, the major player in China’s tech sector and the backer of several of the AI unicorns, has a host of data that includes facial recognition scans of hundreds of people over several months. According to the surveillance industry, IPVM, Alibaba, which claims itself to be the “Amazon of China”, is openly offering Uighurs/ ethnic minority recognition as a cloud service, allowing customers to be alerted any time it detects a Uighur.

The report comes after the Chinese government was accused by human rights groups for allegedly forcing over 1 million Muslim Uighur and others into indoctrination camps as part of what it calls an ‘anti-terrorism campaign’.

IPVM in their report published that software is capable of identifying Uighurs that appears in Alibaba’s Cloud shield, a system that detects text, images, and other digital content for material related to terrorism, pornography, and other red-flag categories.

Charles Rollet, one of the researchers of IPVM briefly described how if a Uighur, for instance, live streams a video on any website signed with their cloud service, the software instantly detects the Uighur and will flag the video for removal.

He further mentioned that as soon as Alibaba was approached to make comments on this, their company subsequently edited the special mention of Uighurs in the software and told that the feature has only been used “in a testing environment”. The company has refused to shed further light on anything or explain why the feature has been used in the first place.

Before Alibaba edited those descriptions this week, they had said that the software could evaluate two other attributes, as well: whether a person is of “Asian” descent and whether he or she is a “minority” — which, as a description on another page added in parentheses, referred to Uighurs.

Alibaba had not been alone in China in touting tools for automated racial profiling. The Washington Post last week revealed that Huawei, together with one of China’s biggest artificial intelligence firms Megvii, reportedly tested facial recognition software that could send automated alarms when they identify members of the persecuted Uighur community. The alerts will be directly sent to the Chinese government authorities.

IPVM has discovered the document from 2018 which stated that these two Chinese companies, as a part of their trial, tested the feature called “Uighur Alert” on its video cloud infrastructure.

And similar to Alibaba, Huawei also removed the documentation related to the matter from their website after they were asked to comment upon it.

After the matter was raised in the international forum, the leading French soccer star, Antoine Griezmann, who had been a brand ambassador to Huawei, has also cut ties with the company.

Data sans privacy and security

Human Rights Watch has even exposed that a smartphone app was used by the Xinjiang police to monitor the citizens. The app has comprehensively collected the entire data including where people went, when, and for how long, building the picture of a person’s entire day activity.

Also, another crucial point is that if you are using these apps to track your population, then at least focus on the security of that information. But the Chinese government is apparently not interested in that as the data can be accessed by any official authority!

The Chinese government has gone to great lengths to target the Uighur community over the years by monitoring, censoring, and controlling their lives and these technology-driven programs are another tool in the arsenal used by the government to persecute them.

What significant to note is that it is not something new. China has been specifically monitoring the Uighur community since at least 2017 when Chinese authorities started the mass detention of Uighurs.

In 2018, a United Nations report cited concerns that more than a million people were being held in “so-called counter-extremism centers and another two million had been forced into so-called ‘re-education camps’ for political and cultural indoctrination” in Xinjiang.

Many of these camps operate based on what Amnesty International describes as a “highly restrictive and discriminatory” law that China says is designed to combat extremism.

China has always refuted the allegations and called it “purely slander” but the western powers do not seem to be convinced with that.

China’s surveillance technologies were heavily scrutinized by the United States. China has received pushback from the US as the country barred the Americans from investing in a list of companies which has ties with the Chinese military. US authorities have also called them out for representing threats to national security and for human rights violations, particularly in Xinjiang.

Meanwhile, China has already started exporting this technology to other countries such as Uganda, Human rights groups are concerned that the use of such technology will become a way for governments across the globe to seek more controls.

The question is whether the world will wean itself off cheap Chinese electronics or carry on regardless?

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