China uses facial recognition software for harmful discrimination

Paul Watson, Lamp writer

Facial recognition can be used to make your life simpler. With the right device and app, facial recognition can unlock front doors or smartphones. You never have to worry about locking your key in your house or forgetting your password. In a few countries, like China, your face can act as your debit card at ATMs. 

Unfortunately, facial recognition is also used as part of a technological system that oppresses 12 million Uyghurs, who live in the northwestern Xinjiang district of China. They are subjected to facial recognition surveillance, as well as other oppressive measures such as mandatory biometric profiling, re-education camps, and forced labor.  

Facial recognition, as well as any other tool, can be used for good or bad. Professor Darran Byler, in his contribution to UIS Engaged Citizenship Common Experience (ECCE) Speaker Series Program November 8, used the plight of the Uyghurs to illustrate this point and draw attention to ethical use of technology at the personal, national and international level. 

The Uyghurs are one of China’s 55 minority ethnic groups, consisting mostly of Turkic MuslimsByler said the region became important for its natural resources of natural gas, oil and cotton after China changed to a market economy in the 1990s.   

To exploit these resources, 10 million Han, who are the ethnic majority in China, moved into Xinjiang, Byler said. Overtime industrial agriculture increased in the region, accounting for a third of the world’s cotton production. 

Unfortunately, disaffected Uyghurs perpetrated four terrorist attacks during 2013 and 2014, resulting in over 60 deaths. Byler said, the Chinese government labeled one of these attacks as China’s 911, which involved knife-wielding Uyghurs murdering over 30 people at the Kunming train station.  

In May 2014, the Chinese government declared “The People’s War on Terror.” Byler said this differs from the U.S. Global War on Terror because the Chinese are not fighting external threats, but internal. 

“The ‘terrorists’ are minority Muslim populations who make state-directed capitalist expansion more difficult,” Byler said. The security industrial complex uses cameras, digital media, biometric checkpoints, prisons, internment camps, and coerced-labor factories against them. 

This type of response to terrorism is not the overt violence of U.S. drones and targeted killings,” said Byler. 

He identifies the technology that was used against the Uyghurs includes recovery of deleted files on digital devices, AI-enabled Uyghur speech translation and transcribing into Chinese, voice detection software, and facial recognition of Uyghur faces in surveillance video. 

There are more than 7,700 “People’s Convenience Police Stations” spaced within Uyghur neighborhoods every 656 to 984 feet. “And these are really surveillance hubs,” Byler said. 

“They talk about this as a seamless system,” Byler said. “There’s no gaps in the system. No matter where you are, the policing network is supposed to be able to assess you. 

In addition, biometric checkpoints are at every institutional boundary. 

“So if you go into a bank, you go into a hospital, a shopping mall, where you cross a county line, you’ll go through a biometric checkpoint, which is one where you put your ID on the device and then there’s a camera that will match the image that’s on your ID to your face, Byler said. 

“So, all of these checkpoints and the policing system is supported by a really unprecedented data collection program, which the Chinese state authorities called ‘physicals for all,’” Byler said. The data collection occurred in 2017. 

Citizens of Xinjiang were ordered to go to local police stations where biometric data is collected, which included DNA, fingerprints, blood type, voice recordings, and facial imagery. 

Byler said they “had to speak into a microphone reading the text over and over until they had a unique voice signature.” 

He also said creating the facial imagery involved much more than a simple mug shot.  

“It’s actually thousands of images of each face taken from all directions,” Byler said. Different expressions, such as anger or sadnesswere taken in order to get potential emotional states for a complete face print. 

Byler noted that iris scans were sometimes taken instead of face scans. 

He said the government claimed a high participation rate and framed the biometric collection program as a public health initiative. Government workers also visited Uyghur homes to write biographical profiles of each person and link the data to their biometric dataset. 

Byler reported 1,400 technology firms are involved with government security contracts, costing the government $7.2 billion over a recent two-year period. 

In the Spring of 2017, local police began ranking Uyghurs “using categories of extremism or ‘pre-criminal’ behavior,” Byler said. This determined if a person was trustworthy, normal or untrustworthy. 

The pre-criminal behavior included being ethnic Uyghur, unemployed, possessing a passport, praying daily, possessing unauthorized religious knowledge, and homeschooling children. 

Byler also said there was a list of 75 official items that helped to determine Turkic Muslim extremism. The list included abstaining from alcohol, abstaining from cigarettes, telling others not to swear, inviting more than five people to your house without registering with the police department, and having illegal Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter accounts. 

Byler said the Uyghurs that were found untrustworthy were sent to the nearest re-education camp. There are between 200 and 1,200 camps with inmate populations ranging from 2,000 to 130,000, totaling as many as 1.5 million people. 

The largest camp is in Ürümchi, the region’s capitol, which holds 130,000 people, Byler said. 

The government refers to these camps as vocational training schools. Byler said the re-education routine included singing the national anthem, singing other patriotic songs, Chinese language training, and ideology training. 

Byler said the camps were equipped with handcuffs, cattle prods and pepper spray, as well as other items associated with medium security prisons.  

In 2018, camp inmates who passed the language and ideology tests were transferred to labor camps. Byler said the labor camps were textile manufacturing facilities. 

Byler said U.S. companies such as Kohl’s, H&M, and Croft&Barrow sell garments manufactured by Uyghurs in labor camps. 

The security-industrial complex has another connection to the U.S., concerning facial recognition. CloudWalk is a Chinese company that developed the “Fire Eye” system that can identify Uyghurs, Tibetans and other minority groups with its cameras. Zhou Xi is the company’s founder. Byler said he graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

I think one of the biggest takeaways of this presentation was the ethical responsibility our universities have on presenting information to their students,” Zachary McVey, 20, former LLCC student and UIS history major, said. “The knowledge we gain in college should be used to better the world as a whole not negatively take away from it.” 

The technology system that controls the behavior of Uyghurs is one of the first instances in which the technologies like face and voice recognition, GPS tracking, and pattern recognition in on-line activity have been drawn together and used to target an entire population as “pre-criminals, Byler said. By framing Uyghurs in general as potential terrorists, technology firms, police forces and factory owners have been given permission by the state and the Chinese public to act with impunity toward them, placing them in camps and making them work in garment factories.  

On the face of this, these violations of human dignity should be deeply troubling for students and others,” he said 

First, what is happening to the Uyghurs is symptomatic of how powerful technologies can be used by the powerful as weapons against the powerless,” Byler saidIt throws into question the future of human agency and makes it clear that clear regulations and safeguards should be put in place to restrict technology applications such as face surveillance and data harvesting.  

Second, these technology applications are built out of basic technologies that were developed in large part by North American institutions such as MIT, the University of Illinois and Stanford University as well as the U.S. Military,” Byler said. “These institutions bear responsibility for what has happened to the Uyghurs, and as such they should take the lead in assuring that it does not continue.  

Third, the coerced labor that is ongoing in Northwest China as a result of these systems, is manufacturing garments and textiles for the global market. This means that buying cotton goods that are made in China has now become, more often than not, an act of complicity in the suffering of the Uyghurs.Byler said. 

Billie Thomas, 18, LLCC psychology major, said she was unaware of the lecture until McVey invited her to attend.  

I learned so many different things but the two things that stuck with me were the treatment of the Uyghurs and the amount of technology that China has developed and is using,” she said. 

She characterized China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as horrific and saw similarities in how the Nazi treated the Jews and how the U.S. treated Native Americans. 

Thomas said she would like to do more research about the Uyghurs. “I would like to bring more awareness to the mistreatment of the Uyghurs and to the amount of technology that China is using.” 

I think this lecture has inspired me to be more aware of global issues,” said McVey. “The assimilation of the Uyghurs is a massive issue that not many people are aware of and I am sure there are other events occurring all over the world that violate human rights as well. The more we know about the issues facing our world the better we may be at stopping them.  

McVey attended the lecture to support the UIS History Club because it co-sponsored the event.  

Byler’s lecture was cosponsored by the World Affairs Council of Central Illinois, NPR Illinois, Global Studies, Department of History, Department of Sociology Anthropology, Division of Student Affairs, International Student Services, and the Diversity Center.   

The ECCE Speaker Series Program is part of UIS’ ECCE curriculum that offers a program of courses for undergraduates.  

The next WACCI-sponsored event will be Kathy Johnson presenting “The Importance of Diplomacy” December 4 at 7:30 pm in the Hoogland Center’s Club Room. The presentation is free and open to the public.  

Byler received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Washington in 2018 and is a lecturer there. He has also provided expert testimony to the Canadian House of Commons on Uyghur human rights issues.