Credit: Screen grabs
China’s Using Zimbabwe as a Lab to Teach Computers How to Track Black People

China’s Using Zimbabwe as a Lab to Teach Computers How to Track Black People

Chinese big tech companies are using Zimbabwe as a large research laboratory to develop facial recognition that will help them identify and track black people, The Financial Times reported Monday.

ZTE and other Chinese tech behemoths are shaping the United Nations’s architectural standards for facial recognition technology, according to leaked documents obtained by the Times. The standards will reportedly help China’s tech industry open up new markets in the Middle East and Africa.

China’s tech titans are proposing new standards inside the United Nations’s International Telecommunication Union for facial recognition, video monitoring and vehicle surveillance, among other cutting edge tech developments.

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Such standards are often accepted by Africa and other developing nations that lack resources, experts say.


“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,” Richard Wingfield, head of legal at Global Partners Digital, told reporters.

The standards will help ZTE improve the accuracy of recognition algorithms, particularly with respect to black people, the report notes.


The new International Telecommunication Union proposal stipulates a requirement that companies must store detected facial features in a database, which will include identifying information, such as race, skin color, facial curvature, among other demographic features.

The Times provided one example of how Zimbabwe’s government will help ZTE’s technology become more accurate.

“A deal between Chinese facial recognition company CloudWalk and the government of Zimbabwe means the latter will send data on millions of African faces to the Chinese company to help train the technology,” the report Monday noted.

China’s influence in setting the U.N. standards is growing. Academics believe China considers these standards pivotal as it seeks dominance in artificial intelligence.

“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,” according to a 2018 report from New America Foundation.

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

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Standards in the Middle East and Africa, Europe and North America are governed by the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and 3GPP. But this is not China’s first foray in data accumulation in Africa.

The Chinese government, for instance, built and financed a $200 million complex holding the African Union in Ethiopia. The building was completed and handed over to the Ethiopian government in January 2012. Media reports have since cast a negative light on China’s intentions.

France’s Le Monde published an investigation in January 2018 showing that from 2012 to 2017, servers based inside the African Union’s headquarters were transferring data every night to unknown servers in Shanghai. It was also reported at the time that microphones hidden in desks and walls were detected and removed during a sweep for bugs.

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Cover image: A still from the 1980 movie “The Gods Must be Crazy.”/A police officer wears a pair of smartglasses with a facial recognition system at Zhengzhou East Railway Station in Zhengzhou, China. (Screen grabs)



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