One Month, 500,000 Face Scans: How China Is Using A.I. to Profile a Minority

In a major ethical leap for the tech world, Chinese start-ups have built algorithms that the government uses to track members of a largely Muslim minority group.

The New York Times
By Paul Mozur
April 14, 2019

Image SenseTime is among the Chinese artificial intelligence companies developing facial recognition technology.CreditCreditGilles Sabrié for The New York Times

The Chinese government has drawn wide international condemnationfor its harsh crackdown on ethnic Muslims in its western region, including holding as many as a million of them in detention camps.

Now, documents and interviews show that the authorities are also using a vast, secret system of advanced facial recognition technology to track and control the Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority. It is the first known example of a government intentionally using artificial intelligence for racial profiling, experts said.

The facial recognition technology, which is integrated into China’s rapidly expanding networks of surveillance cameras, looks exclusively for Uighurs based on their appearance and keeps records of their comings and goings for search and review. The practice makes China a pioneer in applying next-generation technology to watch its people, potentially ushering in a new era of automated racism.

The technology and its use to keep tabs on China’s 11 million Uighurs were described by five people with direct knowledge of the systems, who requested anonymity because they feared retribution. The New York Times also reviewed databases used by the police, government procurement documents and advertising materials distributed by the A.I. companies that make the systems.

Chinese authorities already maintain a vast surveillance net, including tracking people’s DNA, in the western region of Xinjiang, which many Uighurs call home. But the scope of the new systems, previously unreported, extends that monitoring into many other corners of the country.

Image Shoppers lined up for identification checks outside the Kashgar Bazaar last fall. Members of the largely Muslim Uighur minority have been under Chinese surveillance and persecution for years.CreditPaul Mozur

The police are now using facial recognition technology to target Uighurs in wealthy eastern cities like Hangzhou and Wenzhou and across the coastal province of Fujian, said two of the people. Law enforcement in the central Chinese city of Sanmenxia, along the Yellow River, ran a system that over the course of a month this year screened whether residents were Uighurs 500,000 times.    [FULL  STORY]

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