Report: Chinese tech companies play major role in developing UN facial recognition standards

Report: Chinese tech companies play major role in developing UN facial recognition standards

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Chinese tech companies are playing a major part in shaping the United Nation's surveillance and facial recognition standards for lesser developed regions around the world, according to leaked documents obtained by the Financial Times.

The story: The UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) ratifies standards for facial recognition, video monitoring, city and vehicle surveillance, which are then adopted by underdeveloped nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and Chinese tech companies such as ZTE, Dahua, and China Telecom are among those shaping those standards.

Unlike Europe and North America, which have their own groups like the IETF, IEEE and 3GPP that set facial recognition and video surveillance standards, lesser developed nations who lack the resources to create standards themselves embrace the U.N.-adopted standards, which are increasingly being drafted by private companies instead of government officials.

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“African states tend to go along with what is being put forward by China and the ITU as they don’t have the resources to develop standards themselves,” said Richard Wingfield, head of legal at Global Partners Digital, an online human rights company.

China has already agreed to provide infrastructure and surveillance technology to developing countries under its “Belt and Road Initiative,” and Chinese video surveillance products have spread across Africa and beyond over the past several years, the Financial Times reports.

Earlier this year, the South African company Vumacam installed 15,000 surveillance cameras in Johannesburg which were provided by Chinese video surveillance giant Hikvision, the world's largest supplier of video surveillance products.

Uganda revealed in August that it will be installing Huawei surveillance cameras with face recognition capabilities, and one of the potential contractors for Singapore's announced plan to install facial recognition cameras on its lampposts is a Chinese startup called Yitu.

It takes the ITU about two years to draft and adopt the standards which are in turn embraced by developing countries.

The standards are proposed by companies and governments of ITU member states and discussed at meetings before being finally approved, and Chinese companies have played a major part in how these standards are shaped.

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“A number of Chinese companies have really started to rise and seize market share around the world in these areas [such as face recognition and visual surveillance],” said Steven Feldstein, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he recently published a study about the global expansion of AI surveillance. “It’s a deliberate investment prioritisation by the Chinese state to help flourish the [AI] sector, and we are now seeing the fruits of that.”

A 2018 report from US think tank The New America Foundation suggests that new facial recognition technologies are also likely to result in "societal trust" in these technologies due to their potential to prevent "high-profile accidents."

“Specifying methods for testing and assessing facial recognition systems or service robots to prevent high-profile accidents could cultivate societal trust in these new technologies,” the report stated.

The report also stated that "the drive to shape international standards . . . reflects longstanding concerns that Chinese representatives were not at the table to help set the rules of the game for the global Internet.”

“The Chinese government wants to make sure that this does not happen in other ICT spheres, now that China has become a technology power with a sizeable market and leading technology companies, including in AI.”

Some have criticized the standards the ITU is currently discussing for not including opinions from data protection experts, suggesting the unchecked standards could lead to human rights violations like the right to privacy and freedom of speech.

“There are virtually no human rights, consumer protection, or data protection experts present in ITU standards meetings so many of the technologies that threaten privacy and freedom of expression remain unchallenged in these spaces,” said Mehwish Ansari, who leads ITU work at Article 19, a British nonprofit human rights group. “When it comes to facial recognition [these standards are] extremely dangerous from a human rights perspective.”

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