Chinese tech groups shaping UN facial recognition standardsDecember 1, 2019
Chinese technology companies are shaping new facial recognition and surveillance standards at the UN, according to leaked documents obtained by the Financial Times, as they try to open up new markets in the developing world for their cutting-edge technologies.
Companies such as ZTE, Dahua and China Telecom are among those proposing new international standards — specifications aimed at creating universally consistent technology — in the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for facial recognition, video monitoring, city and vehicle surveillance.
Standards ratified in the ITU, which comprises nearly 200 member states, are commonly adopted as policy 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”, according to experts.
“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, a company working on human rights on the internet.
Europe and North America have their own regional standards setting bodies, such as the IETF, IEEE and 3GPP, which are dominated by domestic industry players. The ITU, on the other hand, is a space where companies outside of North America and Europe tend to shape and drive standard development.
Standard writing gives companies an edge in the market by aligning global rules with the specifications of their own proprietary technology, say experts.
Over the past few years, Chinese surveillance infrastructure has swept across regions from Angola to Zimbabwe. For example, earlier this year South African company Vumacam installed 15,000 surveillance cameras with facial recognition capabilities in Johannesburg, supplied by Hikvision.
In August, Uganda confirmed the nationwide installation of Huawei surveillance cameras with face recognition capabilities. Similarly, the Singapore government plans to install facial recognition cameras on its lampposts, a contract that Chinese start-up Yitu has bid for, according to local reports.
ITU standards are increasingly being authored by companies as opposed to government officials, according to members of international ITU delegations, and China’s influence in drafting and setting the standards at the UN has grown in recent years.
ITU standards, which usually take around two years to be drafted and adopted, are highly influential in setting the rules around how tech is developed and used, particularly in the developing world. Drafts are put forward by companies and governments, and are then discussed at meetings involving representatives from several member states, before final approval.
“A number of Chinese…