Berlin: Chinese tech giants have patented tools that can detect, track, and monitor Uyghurs, a move human rights groups fear could entrench the persecution of the Muslim minority.
The series of patents, which have been filed since 2017, were discovered by IPVM, a video surveillance research firm.
In a report published Tuesday, the IPVM disclosed a raft of patents for systems that can be used to analyze images for the presence of Uyghurs, and connect them to continuous surveillance cameras and facial recognition networks.
“We cannot ignore the fact that these technologies have been developed in order to be able to efficiently implement … brutal repression,” Roshan Abbas, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The companies could not be reached for comment, but in response to the IPVM, they denied that the patent applications represented the intended use of their technology.
UN officials said China is turning Xinjiang, where many Uighurs live, into a “massive internment camp,” with patented tracking technology that human rights groups see as key to the crackdown.
“These technologies allow the police in China to pass through a large database of faces, and a facet that Amnesty International has identified as non-Chinese, or Uyghurs,” says Charles Rowlett, a researcher at IPVM.
The United Nations estimates that more than a million Chinese Muslims, many of them from the ethnic Uighur minority, are held in Xinjiang, where activists say crimes against humanity and genocide are taking place.
China has denied any violations and says its camps in the region provide professional training and help fight extremism.
Its embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Research by human rights groups indicates that Chinese tech companies are adopting Uyghur detection systems, using facial recognition to alert authorities to the whereabouts of people, and predictive police tools to identify people who will be detained.
Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch said the world should be alarmed by the use of technology to persecute the Uyghurs.
“Imagine if the United States was a complete dictatorship, imprisoning blacks just because they were black, and there was technology spread across the country to discover the whereabouts of blacks so that they could be tracked,” she said.
“This is what we’re seeing in China – and the world needs to pay more attention.”
Controversy over the role of companies in China’s treatment of Uighurs is increasingly spreading internationally, with the United States imposing sanctions on Chinese tech firms accused of inciting persecution.
The incoming Biden administration this week reinstated a donation from former US Senator Barbara Boxer, who registered as a lobbyist for Hikvision, a video surveillance company blacklisted by the US government in 2019.
The Boxer company, Mercury Public Affairs, did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the IPVM report, several major security camera manufacturers in China have submitted “Uyghur Analytics”, including the three largest companies: Hikvision, Dahua, and Uniview.
Hikvision told Reuters in 2019 that the company “takes universal human rights seriously” and that its technology is also used in stores, traffic control and commercial buildings.
One of the patent applications, filed jointly by Chinese tech giant Huawei with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, describes how artificial intelligence can tell if a pedestrian is a Uyghur or not.
Huawei said, according to the IPVM, it will amend the patent.
The company did not respond to a Thomson Reuters Foundation request for comment.
Another patent from facial recognition startup Megvii mentioned the use of a tool that can tell if Uyghurs exist.
Megvey said the patent application was misunderstood, according to the report. The company did not respond to a request for comment from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Roulette said the scale of the persecution means that technology companies in China will increasingly be involved in some form of abuse.
“If you were a Chinese technology company – particularly a company that builds facial recognition – and the police are agents, you get this kind of Uyghur detection analytics,” he said.
The report also discovered similar patents filed by companies not directly related to surveillance.
A field described a patent by e-commerce giant Alibaba technology to discover race, although it did not specify the Uyghurs.
“I was shocked that there are so many tech companies helping the Chinese government to monitor us,” said Civlan Shermit, a Uyghur activist who lives in Turkey and says his mother is being held in a Chinese concentration camp.
“If this technology helps them persecute the Uyghurs – why are they making it.”