China uses AI cameras to monitor Uyghurs, reports German media

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Chinese security authorities are using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to systematically track Uyghurs in Chinese cities, generating detailed individual movement profiles, Table.Media, a German media outlet reported.

Public tenders for corresponding software, exclusively obtained by Table.Briefings, confirm this surveillance.

The documents originate from police departments in Shanghai, various cities and counties in Zhejiang province, and the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu. These tenders specifically target the identification of Uyghur individuals in public spaces.

The documents, dated over the past six years with the most recent in 2023, highlight ongoing efforts to develop facial recognition programs focused on Uyghurs.

The 2023 document, stamped by the Shanghai Xuhui District Police Department, indicates a persistent distrust of Uyghurs despite years of state re-education efforts.

Table.Media reports that the authorities’ continued demand suggests that they still harbor a general distrust of the Uyghurs despite years of state re-education measures.

“The documents clearly show that the Chinese security authorities continue to systematically treat the Uyghurs as potential criminals and thus as second-class citizens,” says Xinjiang expert Bjoern Alpermann from the University of Wurzburg.

According to Alpermann, the fact that the tenders come from different parts of the country indicates that this practice is commonplace.

“This refutes the Chinese government’s narrative that, after a tough re-education phase, the ‘danger of extremism’ has now been banished and Uyghurs can enjoy their freedom as normal citizens of China and pursue their dreams,” says Alpermann, who discovered comparable evidence for the digital identification of Uyghurs as part of the research project “Remote Ethnography of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”

The specifications for the bidders in the Shanghai tender are clearly formulated. Simply put, the artificial intelligence must recognize where Uyghurs are specifically located within the district and with whom they come into contact. Using images from 3,700 surveillance cameras in Xuhui alone, the software not only needs to be able to identify the individuals in question, but also alert the authorities in real-time.

The analysis results include facial images and facial data information. People with glasses or beards must also be recognized. In addition, the system needs to compare the analysed information with the police’s facial image database to retrieve further data on the individuals immediately.

The system will be used in 14 police stations, detention centers, and traffic police offices in Xuhui.

“The tenders are striking. They clearly indicate that the Uyghurs are still seen as a threat,” says anthropologist and China researcher Adrian Zenz from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington.

“The conclusion is that a police state like China’s does not create security; it creates a mentality of insecurity,” says Zenz. His research on internment in Xinjiang is considered groundbreaking and has also been taken up by the United Nations.

All five documents available to Table.Briefings explicitly mention the need to identify Uyghurs, including an alert function. The 2022 document from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan in southwest China, also requires the analysis of “racial characteristics.”

China officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups. However, the software does not filter other ethnic groups besides the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs are one of the largest minorities in the People’s Republic. They are predominantly Muslim and are subject to strict family planning controls, which have significantly reduced their numbers in recent decades.

The Uyghurs concerned see their accusations against the Chinese government confirmed. “This shows how the Chinese government regards the Uyghurs as a foreign body separate from the majority Han ethnic group,” says Haiyuer Kuerban, Berlin Director of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC).

“This official stance confirms that the Uyghurs have never been part of the Chinese nation in the eyes of the government.”

He added that the open discrimination was evidence of a dangerous government stance rooted in racist ideologies. They also showed that surveillance and discrimination against the Uyghurs was not limited to their home region, but had reached a nationwide dimension.

In 2009, hundreds of people were killed in ethnic clashes between Han Chinese and Uyghurs in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi. In response to a series of terrorist attacks by extremists, the state ultimately introduced a re-education program for Uyghur citizens.

The discrimination against all Uyghurs increased drastically as a result and led to the creation of camps in which a seven-digit number of Uyghurs have been held against their will since around 2017.

The number of inmates in the camps has since decreased significantly. However, the number of Uyghurs sentenced to lengthy prison sentences has skyrocketed.

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