This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Online sales and tech giant Alibaba is offering facial recognition services to its cloud customers that enables them to detect members of the ethnic minority Uyghur group, who are already being subjected to mass incarceration in “re-education” camps by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, according to a report by a group tracking video surveillance around the world.
While China’s law enforcement agencies are already known to use this kind of technology to carry out racial profiling of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, the report by IPVM said this is the first time it has been detected being used commercially in China.
Alibaba, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange with a market capitalization of around U.S.$700 billion, “openly offers Uyghur/’ethnic minority’ recognition as … service [on Alibaba Cloud], allowing customers to be alerted any time Alibaba detects a Uyghur,” the report found.
It said Alibaba Cloud had “quickly deleted” mentions of Uyghurs and minority detection on its website after IPVM contacted the company for comment.
Alibaba Cloud then claimed, without evidence or explanation, that these features were only used “within a testing environment,” IPVM said, which collaborated on reports on racial profiling of Uyghurs using facial recognition in the New York Times, which has also published its own report.
Earlier this month, IPVM and The Washington Post said that fellow Chinese tech giants Huawei and Megvii had also tested and validated ‘Uyghur alarms’ as part of facial recognition software intended to be used by police as a part of a nationwide video surveillance network.
Alibaba Cloud, also known as Aliyun, claims three million customers around the world, and is China’s largest cloud service.
The reference to Uyghur facial recognition was part of Alibaba’s “Cloud Shield” solution, which offers clients the ability to detects and recognize text, pictures, videos, and voices containing pornography, politics, terrorism, advertisements, and spam.
“Terrorism” has frequently been used by the CCP as a catch-all charge targeting Uyghurs for normal religious activities, including wearing modest clothing, growing beards, reading the Quran, and fasting during Ramadan.
A version of Alibaba Cloud’s content security API page cached by Google on Dec. 13 showed a query that could determine whether a person “is a member of an ethnic minority” by analyzing their facial features.
Elsewhere, the Cloud Shield API Guide places the word Uyghur in parentheses after the word “minority.”
“The technology works for any video or pictures with Uyghur faces, so even an anodyne prerecorded video of a Uyghur explaining her first day of university would be flagged if the Alibaba Cloud client had toggled on this feature and it worked as intended,” the IPVM report said.
It said Alibaba owns YouKu, similar to YouTube, while the company’s e-commerce platforms make heavy use of livestreaming, and that Weibo, one of China’s largest social media apps, also uses Alibaba Cloud.
The detection of Uyghurs isn’t offered by Alibaba’s global services in English, suggesting that the function is only offered in China, the report said.
“Soon after IPVM and The New York Times reached out for comment, Alibaba removed the API Guide mentioning Uyghurs [and] the “ethnic minority” face detection feature from the two pages mentioning it,” it said, adding that the claims that Alibaba was only “testing” the service weren’t supported by any evidence.
An August 2020 API on the website of fellow cloud services provider Kingsoft, which held a U.S.$10 billion IPO on the NASDAQ in May, also offered “Uyghur, non-Uyghur” face detection, IPVM said.
Kingsoft has since deleted this API from its website, denying it could identify Uyghurs.
“The Subject API was not able to distinguish or identify individuals of Uyghur background,” the company said in a statement. “The labeling on the basis of any race is inappropriate and inconsistent with Kingsoft Cloud’s policies and values.”
“This misleading product is being withdrawn and we will conduct a full review of our API platform,” it said.
“It has been well documented that China police use Uyghur ‘alerts’ in their video surveillance systems,” IPVM said.
“Alibaba’s offering of this explicitly racist technology to its vast Cloud clientele shows the repression of Uyghurs goes well beyond law enforcement,” it said in conclusion.