Chinese tech companies are shaping UN facial recognition standards, according to leaked documents

Meng Jing

Chinese tech giants are shaping United Nations’ standards for facial recognition as well as video monitoring, according to a Financial Times report based on leaked documents.

China’s telecommunications equipment maker ZTE, security camera maker Dahua Technology and the state-owned Chinese telecommunication company China Telecom are among those proposing new international standards in the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for facial recognition, video monitoring, city and vehicle surveillance, said a Financial Times report on Monday.

Standards ratified in the Geneva-headquartered ITU, which has 193 member states, are more often adopted as policies by developing nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where the Chinese government has agreed to supply infrastructure and surveillance tech under its “Belt and Road Initiative”, noted the FT report.

Writing standards gives companies an edge in market as they are able to craft regulations to fit the specifications of their own proprietary technology. In recent years, Chinese companies have been increasing their influence in international standards-setting bodies, such as the ITU and ISO as their global ambition grow.

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ITU standards, which usually take around two years to be drafted and adopted, are highly influential in setting the rules in African countries as they don’t have the resources to develop standards themselves, according to the FT. Data from African countries is also very important to Chinese tech companies, which are seeking to improve their facial recognition especially for people of colour, said the FT.

The ITU did not immediately reply to a request for comment by the Post. ZTE and Dahua did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Chinese tech companies – particularly Huawei Technologies, Hikvision, Dahua, and ZTE – supply artificial intelligence surveillance technology in 63 countries, according to a September report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.

The expanding footprint of Chinese tech firms, especially in face recognition and surveillance, has prompted growing concern in the West. Eight Chinese tech firms, including Dahua, have been added to the US government Entity List earlier this year for their role in enabling human rights violations against Muslim minority groups in China, including the Uygurs.

The proposals currently being discussed at the ITU have been criticised by human rights lawyers as crossing the line from technical specifications to policy recommendations, according to the FT.

China’s facial recognition spread prompts residents to voice concerns

Requirements in the draft standards for facial recognition, which are expected to be completed by the end of 2019 and will be fast-tracked for approval, stipulate a requirement to store detected facial features in a database, including race, skin colour, face style, birthmarks, scars and other demographic features.

The suggested use cases for facial recognition include the examination of people in public spaces by the police, confirmation of employee attendance at work, and the arrest of criminals, specifically by comparing “the country’s fugitive library with the local population library” to smoke out “criminal fugitives hiding locally”, according to the FT.

Additional reporting by Li Tao and Sarah Dai.

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