A police officer checks the ID card of a man in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China. Picture: REUTERS/THOMAS PETER
A police officer checks the ID card of a man in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China. Picture: REUTERS/THOMAS PETER

Shanghai — Technology giant Alibaba Group Holding has facial recognition technology that can specifically pick out members of China’s Uighur minority, surveillance industry researcher IPVM has said in a report.

The report comes as human rights groups accuse China of forcing more than 1-million Muslim Uighurs into labour camps, and calls out firms suspected of complicity.

An Alibaba Cloud spokesperson said the technology was confined to testing. “The ethnicity mention refers to a feature/function that was used within a testing environment during an exploration of our technical capability. It was never used outside the testing environment.”

China has repeatedly denied forcing anyone into what it has called vocational training centres, and has also said the region of Xinjiang is under threat from Islamist militants.

Still, sensitivities have prompted caution among Chinese internet firms that often self-censor to avoid running foul of a government that strictly controls online speech and which in November, published draft rules to police livestreaming.

In a report published on Wednesday, US-based IPVM said software capable of identifying Uighurs appears in Alibaba’s Cloud Shield content moderation service for websites.

Alibaba describes Cloud Shield as a system that “detects and recognises text, pictures, videos and voices containing pornography, politics, violent terrorism, advertisements, and spam, and provides verification, marking, custom configuration and other capabilities”.

An archived record of the technology shows it can perform such tasks as “glasses inspection”, “smile detection”, whether the subject is “ethnic” and, specifically, “Is it Uighur”.

Consequently, if a Uighur livestreams a video on a website signed up to Cloud Shield, the software can detect that the user is Uighur and flag the video for review or removal, IPVM researcher Charles Rollet said.

IPVM said mention of Uighurs in the software disappeared near the time it published its report.

Alibaba is listed on both the New York and Hong Kong stock exchanges. It is the biggest cloud computing vendor in China and the fourth worldwide, according to data from researcher Canalys.

Earlier in December, US lawmakers sent letters to Intel and Nvidia following reports of their computer chips being used in the surveillance of Uighurs.

Reuters

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