Chinese tech giant offered facial recognition AI that tracks persecuted Uyghurs

A Chinese tech company that offered facial recognition software that identified Uygurs and other ethnic minorities has denied being under investigation.

Alibaba Group Holdings was criticised this week after it was revealed that it was promoting software that recognised people by ethnicity.

The company said in a statement: “Racial or ethnic discrimination or profiling in any form violates Alibaba's policies and values.

“We are dismayed to learn that Alibaba Cloud developed a facial recognition technology in a testing environment that included ethnicity as an algorithm attribute for tagging video imagery.

"We do not and will not permit our technology to be used to target or identify specific ethnic groups.”

Rumours have since swirled that the company was being investigated by the central Chinese authorities.

A spokesman for Alibaba denied the reports but admitted it had benefitted from government supervision for “healthy development”.

The US-based surveillance industry research firm IPVM revealed this week that it had discovered detection software in Alibaba’s Cloud Shield Service.

The feature is a part of Alibaba's Cloud Shield solution, which "detects and recognises text, pictures, videos, and voices containing pornography, politics, violent terrorism, advertisements and spam," according to the materials published by IPVM.

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Help documentation and sample code specifically mentioned the ability to identify Uygurs, the documents show.

The feature was not mentioned on Alibaba Cloud's English or global websites, according to IPVM.

Alibaba Cloud has since removed mentions of Uygurs and minority detection on its Chinese website, IPVM and The New York Times reported.

Since 2017, China has been interning many members of the Uygur Muslim minority in the country's western Xinjiang region, with as many as a million held in camps by one 2018 estimate from the UN.

Critics accuse Beijing of trying to eradicate the ethnic and cultural Uygur identity, but Beijing has repeatedly dismissed these claims, saying its re-education camps there are meant for job training and countering extremism.

The revelations about Alibaba Cloud risk turning the world's largest e-commerce company into a target for the US, which has already blacklisted Chinese firms over related technology.

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