Alibaba says it won't allow its tech to target, identify ethnic groups

BEIJING (REUTERS) – Alibaba Group said it will not allow its technology to be used for targeting and identifying specific ethnic groups, following a report that its facial recognition technology can pick out Uighur minorities.

The company was reported to have facial recognition technology which could specifically pick out members of China’s Uighur minority by surveillance industry researcher IPVM.

Alibaba, in a statement, said it was “dismayed” that Alibaba Cloud developed facial recognition technology that includes ethnicity as an attribute for tagging video imagery and that the firm never intended the technology to be used in this manner.

The report comes as human rights groups accuse China of forcing over one million Muslim Uighurs into labour camps in the region of Xinjiang, and call out firms suspected of complicity.

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

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

US-based IPVM in a report published on Wednesday (Dec 16) 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 told Reuters.

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

Alibaba in a statement said it was “dismayed” that Alibaba Cloud developed facial recognition software that includes ethnicity as an attribute for tagging video imagery, and that it never intended the software to be used in this manner. The feature was “trial technology” not intended for customers.

Alibaba did not mention Uighurs in its statement.

“We have eliminated any ethnic tag in our product offering,” an Alibaba spokeswoman told Reuters.

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, showed data from researcher Canalys.

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

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