BERLIN (GERMANY) – In a move that human rights groups fear could seal oppression of the Muslim minority, Uyghurs, Chinese technology giants have registered patents for tools that can detect, track and monitor Uighurs.
The patents were unearthed by IPVM, a video surveillance research firm. The company stated that some of the patents were filed in 2017.
According to a report submitted by the IPVM on Tuesday, patents were filed for a cluster systems that could be used to analyse images for the presence of Uyghurs and tag them into ongoing surveillance camera and facial recognition networks.
“We cannot ignore the fact that these technologies have been developed in order to be able to efficiently carry out..brutal oppression,” Rushan Abbas, executive director of the rights group Campaign for Uyghurs said.
The firms in question have denied that the patents applications represented the intended use of their technologies as stated by IPVM.
One patent application, filed by the Chinese tech giant Huawei in conjunction with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, describes how AI can tell if a pedestrian is Uighur or not.
Huawei, according to IPVM, said it would amend the patent.
Another patent from the facial recognition start-up Megvii mentions using a tool that can tell if Uighurs are present.
Megvii said the patent application had been misunderstood, according to the report. The firm did not respond to a request for comment by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
According to the IPVM report, many top China security camera manufacturers have offered “Uyghurs analytics”, including the three largest firms: Hikvision, Dahua and Uniview.
Hikvision told that it “takes global human rights very seriously” and that its technology was also used in shops, traffic control and commercial buildings.
The report also discovered similar patents filed by firms that are not directly linked to surveillance.
A patent field by the e-commerce giant Alibaba described technology to detect race, though it did not specify Uighurs.
“I am shocked there are so many technology firms helping the Chinese government watch us,” said Jevlan Shirmemmet, a Uighur activist living in Turkey who says his mother is detained in a Chinese internment camp.
“If this technology helps them persecute Uighur people — why are they making it.”
United Nations officials have said China is transforming the Xinjiang region, where many Uighurs live, into a “massive internment camp”.
“These technologies allow police in China to go through a large database of faces, and flag faces that the AI has marked as non-Chinese, or Uighurs,” says Charles Rollet, a researcher with IPVM. “There are major human rights implications”
China has denied any abuse and says its camps in the region provide vocational training and help fight extremism.
Research by human rights groups suggests that Chinese tech firms are building Uighur detection systems, using facial recognition to alert authorities to peoples’ whereabouts, and predictive policing tools to identify which to detain.
Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch said the world should be alarmed by the use of tech in Uighur persecution.
“Imagine if the U.S. were a full-on dictatorship, imprisoning Black people just for being Black, and there was technology deployed across the country to detect where Black people were, so they could be hunted down,” she said.
“That’s what we are seeing in China – and the world needs to pay way more attention.”