from the great-work-if-you-can-plausibly-deny-it dept
Pretty much exactly a year ago, the Washington Post obtained documents that showed Chinese tech giant Huawei was working with the government to create facial recognition on steroids: a system capable of not just recognizing faces, but also certain ethnicities.
There’s only one reason for developing ethnicity recognition in China. The government’s war on its Muslim Uighur population continues with no sign of letting up. Huawei’s tech would enable the government to identify and track its most undesirable citizens, most likely to find any reason at all to disappear them into the country’s many prisons and reeducation camps.
Huawei denied involvement in this project. It did not deny the documents seen by the Washington Post were legitimate, however. Instead, it claimed the documents referred to a test project that had not been deployed. According to its spokesperson, the company would never provide the powerful Chinese government with tools developed for the purpose of targeting Uighur citizens.
It was a pretty weak denial, considering Huawei’s disadvantaged position. If it wishes to maintain its healthy market share in China, it will have to comply with the government’s demands. That’s how it works in China and that’s how it’s worked for years. And, no matter where they’re located, companies don’t often spend money on test runs of products they don’t intend to sell or deploy in the future. Some testing may be done to see if something is feasible. But if the product works well enough to put on the market (or sell to governments), it will eventually result in real-world applications.
One year later and it’s the Washington Post again obtaining documents about Huawei’s relationship with the Chinese government. Huawei has suggested it’s not working directly with the government to create surveillance gear, claiming it’s nothing more than a provider of apolitical networking hardware and software.
But the documents seen by the Post strongly suggest otherwise.
A review by The Washington Post of more than 100 Huawei PowerPoint presentations, many marked “confidential,” suggests that the company has had a broader role in tracking China’s populace than it has acknowledged.
These marketing presentations, posted to a public-facing Huawei website before the company removed them late last year, show Huawei pitching how its technologies can help government authorities identify individuals by voice, monitor political individuals of interest, manage ideological reeducation and labor schedules for prisoners, and help retailers track shoppers using facial recognition.
Pretty disturbing stuff. Also, sadly, pretty normal stuff for the Chinese government, which has shoved thousands of people into hard labor/reeducation camps and subjected its more “free” residents to always-on monitoring of pretty much everything they do.
Huawei, of course, denies this. It told the Post that it “had no knowledge” of the documents referred to in the article. This is a strange statement to make considering the documents were posted on Huawei’s site and contain a Huawei watermark.
It also said this:
“Privacy protection is our top priority,” the company said.
Well, clearly it isn’t. It’s top priority is whatever sells. And it appears to have a lot of products in the pipeline that may prove lucrative if and when it decides these are ready to go live.
The Post reviewed more than 3,000 PowerPoint slides Huawei apparently inadvertently left exposed on its site. The presentations appear to be legitimate and created by the company. However, it’s unclear whether these pitches have been made to government agencies. But some of the presentations appear to have been specifically created with the Chinese government in mind.
The Post could not confirm whom the Chinese-language presentations were shown to, or when. Some of the slides showcase surveillance functions specific to police or government agencies, suggesting that Chinese government authorities may have been the intended audience. Many of the PowerPoints have a creation timestamp of Sept. 23, 2014, with the latest modifications to the files made in 2019 or 2020, according to the presentations’ metadata.
That echoing noise you hear is Huawei’s claiming ringing hollow. The government’s statements in support of Huawei don’t actually deny its interest in buying more surveillance gear that can be used to target Uighurs, government critics, and other undesirables. The statement from the government refers only to Huawei’s “no back door” agreement, which is really a shot at the US government’s blacklisting of Huawei products, rather than a clarification on the products and services discussed in the presentations.
One presentation describes voiceprint analysis developed by Huawei and iFlytek. The latter company has been sanctioned by the US Commerce Department for its human rights violations against the Uighur population. Supposedly, this tech would be used for “national security” purposes — a purpose heavily exploited by the Chinese government to do everything from imprison Uighur Muslims to imprison protesters fighting its premature takeover of Hong Kong.
Other documents posted by the Post are clearly government-oriented. There’s a “smart prison” platform for managing inmates and their reeducation. There’s a location tracking system for “political persons of interest.” And there’s a “Xinjiang surveillance system” that targets the region of the country where most Uighur residents are located.
Huawei’s denials are pretty weak in the face of this evidence. It would clearly like to sell surveillance tech to the Chinese government — tech that will enhance its oppression of minorities and political opponents. That’s not going to get it excused from any blacklists, though, so weak denials it is. The Chinese government has long since stopped caring what anyone thinks of it, so it’s likely hoping these new and exciting oppression enhancers will be on the market sooner, rather than later.