Alibaba dismayed over use of its software to identify ethnicity, Uighurs

Alibaba dismayed over use of its software to identify ethnicity, Uighurs
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Alibaba expressed dismay over reports that its subsidiary created a software used to detect ethnicity, including Uighurs.

The Chinese tech giant Alibaba released its statement regarding the alleged use of its software to identify ethnicity, particularly Uighurs, following reports from The New York Times and surveillance industry publication IPVM.

The reports and Alibaba’s response

The reports indicated that Alibaba Cloud demonstrated to its clients how they can use its facial recognition system to identify members of the Uighur community in videos and images.

According to the reports, the system included the example “Is this a Uighur?” in an algorithm and that it also included code to determine if a person was a “minority” or “Asian.”

In response to these reports, Alibaba released a statement saying it was “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.”

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While the company did not mention Uighurs specifically in its statement or explain the reason behind the system, it emphasized that the software had been limited to trials, and “was not deployed by any customer.”

Alibaba said: “We never intended our technology to be used for and will not permit it to be used for targeting specific ethnic groups. We have eliminated any ethnic tag in our product offering.”

Repression of Uighurs and other minorities in China

China has allegedly been repressing Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups for a long time, specifically in the western Xinjiang region. According to the US State Department, up to two million minorities have been detained in its re-education camps in Xinjiang.

According to the Chinese government, the crackdown in Xinjiang was needed to address extremism and terrorism in the region.

In October 2019, the US decided to blacklist 28 Chinese organizations for allegedly abusing ethnic Uighurs. They were added to its Entity List, which bans them from purchasing products from US companies without approval from the government. These organizations include government agencies and technology companies that specialize in surveillance equipment.

According to a Commerce Department filing, these organizations are “implicated in human rights violations and abuses”. It stated that these groups are involved in “China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups.”

Two months after, the House of Representatives passed a bill that condemns the “arbitrary detention, torture, and harassment” of Uighur Muslims in China.

The House bill, called the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act 2019, condemns the abuse of Uighur Muslims in China and calls for “targeted sanctions” on members of the Chinese government, including Communist Party secretary in the Xinjiang autonomous region, Chen Quanguo.

Uighur rights groups welcomed the passage of the bill, saying this would send an important message to China.

President Donald Trump signed the bill last June.

The bill was signed an hour after forthcoming book of former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton accused the president that he told Chinese President Xi Jinping he agrees to having “concentration camps” for the detainment of Uighurs in western China.

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