Surveillance cameras are mounted on a post in Tiananmen Square as snow falls on Thursday February 14, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

GUANGZHOU, China – A new report reveals patent applications by Huawei and a group of China-based artificial intelligence companies for systems that can identify people who are part of a Muslim minority.

The ethnic Uyghurs, who live primarily in western China, have been identified as an oppressed group by the United Nations, the United States, the United Kingdom, and others. Authorities reportedly use widespread surveillance technology to monitor the area’s Uighur population. The Chinese government denies the mistreatment of Uyghurs and says these camps are vocational training centers.

IPVM, a US-based research firm that analyzes video surveillance technology, examined patents in China related to systems that could identify Uighur faces. IPVM jointly published its research with the BBC.

One of the patents that Huawei and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a state research agency, jointly filed in 2018 says that the algorithms for the patented technology can be used to identify the characteristics of a pedestrian, for example. One attribute that can be recognized is “race”. Uyghurs are referred to as a “race” that the Huawei system can recognize.

This patent relates to an “Object Attribute Recognition Method, Apparatus, Computing Apparatus and System” according to a translation of the filing by IPVM and verified by CNBC.

Huawei told CNBC it was taking “proactive steps” to amend its patent application.

“Huawei is against all forms of discrimination, including the use of technology to carry out ethnic discrimination. Identifying the race of people was never part of the research and development project. It should never have been part of the application, and we are taking proactive steps to make changes to undertake. ” it, “a company spokesman told CNBC via email.

“We work continuously to ensure that new and evolving technologies are developed and applied with the utmost care and integrity.”

The Chinese Academy of Sciences did not respond to a request for comment. The Chinese embassy in Washington informed CNBC in December that US politicians were creating “disinformation” about the Uyghurs in order to “curb China’s development.”

A 2018 United Nations report described concerns that more than a million Uyghurs and other minorities were being held “in so-called anti-extremism centers” in the Xinjiang region. Another two million were forced into “so-called” re-education camps “for political and cultural indoctrination” in Xinjiang, “the report said.

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

In June last year, the United Nations reiterated concerns about “collective oppression of the population”, highlighting the religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet in its report.

Megvii cites the patent’s “misunderstanding”

Another patent highlighted by IPVM was filed in 2019 by Chinese AI giant Megvii. It describes an image recognition system that can be used to identify images of people in a database.

One of the classifications it can identify is ethnicity. Megvii’s system can be used to identify and tag images of Uighurs, the patent says.

A Megvii spokesman said the language in its patent was “open to misunderstanding”.

“The patent application relates to portrait retrieval and re-labeling technology for images that have been mislabeled in existing databases. All images and underlying databases are provided and stored by third parties,” a Megvii spokesman told CNBC on WeChat .

The company said its technology is “not a facial recognition solution and is in no way intended to develop ethnic identification solutions. Megvii has not developed, developed or sold any racial or ethnic identification solutions.”

However, the patent explicitly refers to the classification of images of people “Han, Uyghur, Non-Han, Non-Uyghur” according to a CNBC translation of the document. The Han people are the ethnic majority in China.

“Megvii acknowledges that in the past we have focused on our commercial development and have not had adequate control over our marketing, sales and operating materials. We are taking steps to correct the situation,” the company said.

It’s not the first time Huawei and Megvii have been linked to technology that allegedly can be used to identify Uyghurs. Last month, IPVM claimed the two companies had tested a facial recognition system that could recognize Uyghurs and send alerts to authorities.

Huawei said at the time that the technology “was just a test and has seen no real application”. Megvii said at the time that its “solutions are not designed or adapted to target or identify ethnic groups”.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Commerce put Megvii on a U.S. blacklist known as the Entity List. American companies are not allowed to export to companies that are on the list.

The US government at the time alleged that the company and other companies added to the list were “implicated in human rights abuses and abuses in the implementation of the Chinese campaign for the suppression, arbitrary mass detention, and high-tech surveillance of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslims Minorities “in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.

Uighur reference called “regrettable”

SenseTime, another AI company in China, applied for a patent in 2019 for an image database search system, which was described as a method of retrieving images in a database using certain attributes.

The patent describes how a user could use the word “Uyghur” as a search attribute.

SenseTime called this reference to Uyghurs “regrettable” and emailed CNBC to inform it that it had developed a code of ethics for artificial intelligence since filing the patent application.

“This particular AI research … involves facial recognition of all ethnicities without prejudice. The reference to Uyghurs is regrettable and one of the examples in the application intended to illustrate the attributes recognized by the algorithm,” a spokesman told CNBC.

“It was neither designed nor intended to discriminate against what violates our values. We will update the patent at the next available opportunity. In the meantime, the application also predates the AI ​​Code of Ethics, which we developed later in 2019.” “Said the company.

“Race, ethnicity” is used

In addition to the patent applications from AI firms, IPVM also revealed patents from Alibaba and Baidu relating to ethnicity.

A patent first registered in 2016 by the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba related to an “image set generation process, device and image recognition module” that includes “race, ethnicity” as possible “applications”, confirmed CNBC.

Uyghurs were not mentioned in the file.

“Racial or ethnic discrimination or profiling in any form is against our policies and values. We never intended, and will not allow, our technology to target any particular ethnic group,” an Alibaba spokesman told CNBC, ignoring the reference enter into “race, ethnicity”, which the company uses in the patent.

The Chinese search giant Baidu applied for a patent for an image recognition system in 2018. Ethnicity is one of the attributes that the proposed system can recognize.

The company did not single out Uyghurs or other specific ethnic groups in its patent. A Baidu spokesman told CNBC that the patent’s ethnicity reference was an attempt to provide a technical explanation of its technology, and the company made a distinction between the proposed and existing systems.

“Baidu has never developed or approved its technology to profile an ethnic group. Our existing facial recognition offering is incapable of recognizing ethnicity as an attribute,” Baidu said in a statement via WeChat.

“When filing a patent application, the document notes are intended as an example of a technical explanation. In this case, it describes what the attribute recognition model is, rather than depicting the expected implementation of the invention,” Baidu said.

“We do not and will not allow our technology to be used to identify or target specific ethnic groups,” the company said.