Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Chinese tech companies have ramped up efforts to set technical standards for facial recognition, raising concerns among business competitors, political observers and humanitarian advocates.

Why it matters: China has long made a systematic effort to set international standards on data and hardware compatibility across brands so that the standards reflect how Chinese products already work — giving its domestic industries a leg up in engineering races.

  • But the nation's push to do so on behalf of facial recognition and surveillance industries that it built to surveil and subjugate the nation's Uighur ethnic minority is casting its standards efforts in a new, harsher light.

Driving the news: Several Chinese firms, including ZTE, Dahua and China Telecom, have sought approval at the International Telecommunication Union, a UN technical standards body, for technical standards allowing different companies' surveillance technology — including facial recognition — to work together.

  • China's surveillance industry has grown in no small part due to funding research and buying equipment to fuel a high-tech human rights crisis. China has sent more than 1 million Uighurs to re-education camps while developing systems that identify race using facial features.

To be clear: Technical standards do not commit atrocities.

  • Facial recognition technology has legitimate uses, from unlocking phones to identifying missing persons, and to use data or software across different brands of products, there needs to be standardized hardware and file formats.

But, but, but: China will likely use the technical standards to claim a UN seal of approval for its use of its products.

  • Humanitarian groups worry about a feedback loop, where standards set to create Chinese surveillance industry successes will fund more research into technologies domestically used for oppression, which can then be sold for profit to create new business success.

The big picture: China has tried to use this standards approach to corner entire industries, including telecommunications. Facial recognition techniques represent a particularly thorny part of a broader effort to control artificial intelligence standards.

  • By the time complex infrastructure schemes are entrenched in poorer nations, including those in Africa and Asia, they become extremely difficult to alter.
  • “China offers equipment and funding to modernize those countries on the condition they use these standards, making them even harder to change,” said Tom Duesterberg, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
  • That’s bad for technology. “One thing we don't talk about as much is how China’s rush to entrench its standards precludes other technical standards,” said Kara Frederick, fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “It stops innovation wherever China decides to stop it.”

Between the lines: Technical standards are conventionally seen as modular schematics for emerging technologies. For instance, they explain how to encode an MP3 file so it will play on any device — not what an MP3 file should be allowed to encode.

  • So a technical standards body, at least as we currently envision it, might not be an effective place to address geopolitical or humanitarian issues.
  • But there aren't too many other battlegrounds for challenging China on the Uighur issue. Several humanitarian groups are taking the human rights fights to the ITU.
  • There is a second option that some, including Frederick, specifically mention: A U.S. technology policy that funds domestic research and development, so that the U.S. remains in the conversation as China picks future standards fights.

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