Chinese tech giant Alibaba has sought to distance itself from a face-recognition software feature devised by its cloud computing unit that could help users identify members of the country’s Muslim Uyghur minority.
The company released its statement after IPVM, a surveillance industry researcher, reported that its cloud division showed clients how they could use its technology to identify minority members in videos and images.
U.S.-based IPVM in a report published on Wednesday said software capable of identifying Uyghurs appears in Alibaba’s Cloud Shield content moderation service for websites.
It included a step-by-step guide and was specifically targeted to search for Uyghurs.
IPVM said: “China users can simply send images of people, whether from phones or surveillance video, to the service, and if Alibaba suspects a Uyghur, it will flag the person.”
In a statement, Alibaba said it was “dismayed to learn” that Alibaba Cloud developed the feature that was never intended to be deployed to customers.
China has long been accused of repressing Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups, particularly in the country’s western Xinjiang region.
Beijing 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.
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 https://perma.cc/9ZUV-UD2F shows it can perform such tasks as “glasses inspection”, “smile detection”, whether the subject is “ethnic” and, specifically, “Is it Uyghur”.
Consequently, if a Uyghur 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 Uyghurs 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 Uyghurs 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, U.S. lawmakers sent letters to Intel Corp and Nvidia Corp following reports of their computer chips being used in the surveillance of Uyghurs. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)