Soviet Style Rekognition

In an unusual step for a professional athlete, French World Cup winner Antoine Griezmann terminated his sponsorship deal with Chinese electronics company Huawei this week. In an Instagram post, he cited the tech giant’s development of facial recognition software as the reason for ending his contract after three years.

It was reported last week that Huawei had been involved in developing a ‘Uighurs alert’ system that used facial recognition to alert the authorities of the presence of a Uighur. Uighurs are a minority group of Chinese living in the western Xinjiang region. There are approximately 12 million Uighurs which is around half of the regional population.

China, a country of 1.4 billion people has been placing ever more draconian measures on the ethnically Muslim group over the past few years and there are believed to be up to 1.5 million Uighurs imprisoned in so called “re-education” camps in the region. According to Adrian Zenz, Senior fellow in China Studies at the Washington based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, there are now more than 1,000 camps spread out across the region.

The Chinese government states the camps are merely “vocational schools” but reports from Radio Free Asia’s Uighur Service state that people are held against their will to face political indoctrination while receiving poor diets and rough handling by staff in overcrowded, unhygienic facilities.

The system Huawei has helped to build indeed intrudes beyond what anyone could claim to be acceptable. According to a New York Times 2019 article, the police are able to pull up live feed from a surveillance camera and watch anyone passing through any of the thousands of checkpoints in the city of Kashgar. A photo of the person being surveilled can then be retrieved and their home address, official ID number, education, family ties and links to any previous criminal cases can be displayed on their screens.

This all sounds extremely Soviet in style, albeit more technologically advanced, and it is. Should we be concerned about this? Yes, without doubt, as it is a violation of basic privacy and targets a minority group — something which never tends to end well. However, there is another more salient reason that we in the West should be concerned and that is because our own governments are also moving in the same direction as the authoritarian leaders in China.

Since the leaking of classified National Security Agency (NSA) documents by Edward Snowden in 2013, we have been aware of the scope and scale of a global surveillance system operated by the NSA, but with the tacit approval of the majority of national governments around the world.

Be it the NSA, CIA or the UK’s GCHQ, every move of our online lives is stored away safely in larger and larger super-cooled data centers around the world, ready for any time it is needed in a future world we have very little idea of or control over. But wait, this is only our online lives, right?

Well actually no, it isn’t. Since the 1960s, facial recognition has been used by computers to recognize the complexities of the human face. As the tech has improved, so has the ability of facial recognition software, and by the time of the social media revolution, it was firing on all cylinders. Facebook’s users now upload around 350 million photos every single day and these are then tagged using facial recognition. And the beauty of it is, these photos are being used by Facebook for its own benefit, and people don’t care. They are actively supporting the system.

While Facebook was working away with the legal consent of its users, however limited that consent was when buried in pages of contractual terms that no one ever reads, the other tech overlords were using images of people to train their facial recognition algorithms without these individual’s prior approval. In fact, Amazon, Google parent company Alphabet and Microsoft are now being sued by two Illinois residents who say their images were used without their permission.

So why are these tech companies in democratic societies working on this intrusive Soviet style technology? Well, they are profiting handsomely from supplying it to police forces and security services around the world. In fact, police forces throughout the Unites States, the self-claimed land of the free, are equipped with the technology. In response to the Black Lives Matter protests that swept America in 2020, IBM decided to leave the market completely over concerns about their software being used to surveil the masses and to racially profile. Additionally, Microsoft placed a moratorium on the sale of any equipment to police forces until a “national law is in place, grounded in human rights that will govern this technology”, according to Microsoft President Brad Smith.

Amazon followed suit shortly after, although their moratorium is only for a year and their statement made no mention of what will happen in a year’s time. More alarmingly, the statement did not mention whether the moratorium applied to the federal government at all. They have been pitching their Soviet named Rekognition to federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The Rekognition software has come under scrutiny because its scanning technology showed bias against people of color. In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that Rekognition falsely matched 28 members of congress as criminals and a year later falsely matched 27 New England professional athletes. Both tests mismatched black people disproportionately.

So far, it might sound like the house is in order, but the fact is these companies are only a handful of players in the market, although some of the largest suppliers of the technology by far. The other major player is Google and they have thus far failed to prohibit the sale of this tech to police forces. In June, 1,600 of its employees wrote an internal letter calling on the company to end police contracts. This seems to have fallen on deaf ears and Google continues to advertise its connection with police forces as “progressive”.

Other companies still supplying police forces include Clearview AI, Japan’s NEC and Ayonix, Germany’s Cognitec and Australia’s iOmniscient.

With this in mind, I commend Mr. Griezmann for taking a position of principle that is all too often lacking in professional sports, but it is unfortunately a drop in the ocean when you consider that Amazon, the number one provider of facial recognition technology to U.S. police forces has just purchased the rights to 20 Premier League soccer matches a season.

It’s always incredibly easy to point the finger of blame at authoritarian regimes around the world, but it might be more useful for our athletes and sporting bodies, and population in general, to also speak up at home as our democratic institutions are doing the very same thing.

Simon is the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Japan. He is the author of the upcoming book, Dear Indy: A Father’s Plea for Climate Action.