Alibaba is trying to distance itself from its own Alibaba Cloud division, and in particular from a controversial facial recognition program that is able to identify people based on their ethnic background. The feature would give Chinese authorities the ability to recognize and tag members of the country’s minority Uighur Muslim population.
Reports of the Alibaba system hit the news shortly after the US-based IPVM revealed that Huawei and Megvii had tested a similar system with an “Uighur alarm” that could notify the authorities whenever it spots a member of the minority group. The two companies claimed that the utility never made it beyond those tests, and that it has not been deployed in any real-world applications.
Alibaba, on the other hand, has essentially tried to disavow its own system, implying that it was not aware that Alibaba Cloud had been developing the software and was “dismayed to learn” that it had done so. The company then echoed Huawei and Megvii by suggesting that the feature was only tested and never deployed in a real-world setting. Alibaba also released a statement to let customers know that it had removed the ethnic tagging feature from its facial recognition products, saying that, “We do not and will not permit our technology to be used to target or identify specific ethnic groups.”
The US has blacklisted both Huawei and Megvii for their potential involvement in surveillance schemes in the province of Xinjiang, where civil rights advocates have alleged that as many as a million Uighurs have been imprisoned in internment camps. The Chinese government has claimed that the camps are vocational training centers set up to deescalate religious extremism.
Alibaba has thus far escaped that kind of scrutiny (and those kinds of sanctions), but that could change if the company becomes associated with an ethnic classification system like the one described in the recent report. Megvii has provided facial recognition technology for Alibaba’s Alipay mobile payments platform, and Alibaba has returned the favor by providing financial backing for the Chinese start-up.
Source: Bangkok Post
December 21, 2020 – by Eric Weiss