Chinese tech giant Alibaba Group has come under fire following a damning report by leading surveillance industry researcher IPVM that purports the company to have offered clients facial recognition software that could specifically identifiy Uyghur (or Uighur) minorities.

But Alibaba claims to have no direct involvement with the team that developed the software.

The software concerned is related to Alibaba’s Cloud Shield content moderation service, which, as the name implies, filters content for websites that employ its use.

In use, it would allow business clients to detect facial features of Uyghurs, as well as other minorities, in photos and videos online.

The company itself said it was “dismayed” that such a thing had even occurred in the first place, saying it was never intended for public roll-out. Alibaba claims it was only meant for testing purposes.

“The ethnicity mention refers to a feature/function that was used within a testing environment during an exploration of our technical capability. It was never used outside the testing environment,” Alibaba Cloud told AFP.

Human rights groups have accused China of illegally detaining over one million Muslim Uyghurs in forced-labor and re-education camps.

The epicenter of this mass detention is located in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, officially known as the Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Beijing had vehemently and consistently denied the existence of such camps in the past, only recently acknowledging the presence of “vocational training centers” that aim to stamp out terrorism and improve employment opportunities for ethnic minorities.

China sees Xinjiang as an area vulnerable to terrorism, which they believe justifies its use of high-tech facial recognition, iris scanners, DNA collection, and even artificial intelligence (AI) in the region.

With Alibaba’s Cloud Shield technology now under intense scrutiny, the Uyghur crisis is once again in the spotlight.

Alibaba is the largest cloud computing company in all of China, and it currently ranks as fourth-largest globally. The company enjoys a dominant position in the ecommerce sector, and has also expanded to brick-and-mortar store operations and global logistics.

What are your thoughts on facial recognition?

Read more facial recognition stories:

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The future of anti-surveillance fashion is bright (because the world is going to hell)

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Cover image sourced from AFP / The Kashmir Walla and Bloomberg / Caixin Global.

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