Workers are seen on the production line at a Huawei factory in Dongguan, China. Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment vendor, has faced repeated questions about its surveillance business. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images).
By Eva Dou
Yesterday at 4:00 a.m. EST
The Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies has long brushed off questions about its role in China’s state surveillance, saying it just sells general-purpose networking gear. A review by The Washington Post of more than 100 Huawei PowerPoint presentations, many marked “confidential,” suggests that the company has had a broader role in tracking China’s populace than it has acknowledged.
These marketing presentations, posted to a public-facing Huawei website before the company removed them late last year, show Huawei pitching how its technologies can help government authorities identify individuals by voice, monitor political individuals of interest, manage ideological reeducation and labor schedules for prisoners, and help retailers track shoppers using facial recognition. “Huawei has no knowledge of the projects mentioned in the Washington Post report,” the company said in a statement, after The Post shared some of the slides with Huawei representatives to seek comment. “Like all other major service providers, Huawei provides cloud platform services that comply with common industry standards.” The divergence between Huawei’s public disavowals that it doesn’t know how its technology is used by customers, and the detailed accounts of surveillance operations on slides carrying the company’s watermark, taps into long-standing concerns about lack of transparency at the world’s largest vendor of telecommunications gear. Huawei has long been dogged by criticism that it is opaque and closer to the Chinese government than it claims. A number of Western governments have blocked Huawei gear from their new 5G telecom networks out of concern that the company may assist Beijing with intelligence-gathering, which Huawei denies. Huawei tested AI software that could recognize Uyghur minorities and alert police, report says The new details on Huawei’s surveillance products come amid growing concerns in China, and around the world, about the consequences of pervasive facial recognition and other biometric tracking. Even as the Chinese Communist Party continues to rely on such tools to root out dissent and maintain its one-party rule, it has warned against the technologies’ misuse in the private sector. This autumn, under Beijing’s pressure, Huawei and other tech giants pledged they would not abuse facial recognition and other surveillance tools, as a new law protecting personal data came into effect. Facebook said in November that it would shut down its facial recognition system and delete facial templates of more than a billion people, citing growing concerns about the technology. Last year, Microsoft, IBM and Amazon announced they would not sell facial recognition software to police until there was federal regulation, and Zoom removed an employee attention-tracking function. Huawei said in its statement that it did not develop or sell systems that target any specific group of people and that it required all parts of the business, as well as partners, to comply with applicable laws and business ethics. “Privacy protection is our top priority,” the company said. The Post reviewed more than 3,000 PowerPoint slides from the presentations outlining surveillance projects co-developed by Huawei with partner vendors. Five of the most relevant slides are translated into English below, with original formatting retained. Each outlines a surveillance solution created in a partnership between Huawei and another company, with both companies’ technology. The Post could not confirm whom the Chinese-language presentations were shown to, or when. Some of the slides showcase surveillance functions specific to police or government agencies, suggesting that Chinese government authorities may have been the intended audience. Many of the PowerPoints have a creation timestamp of Sept. 23, 2014, with the latest modifications to the files made in 2019 or 2020, according to the presentations’ metadata. Each of the five presentations has a final slide stating a “Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd.” copyright, with dates ranging from 2016 to 2018. Huawei calls on an old friend, Russia, as U.S. sanctions bite down The Chinese Embassy in Washington said criticism of Huawei was groundless. “Huawei has long publicly expressed its readiness to sign a ‘no back door’ agreement and to set up a cyber security assessment center in any country to receive external scrutiny,” it said. “So far, no other company has ever made the same commitment.” China’s Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and the State Council Information Office did not respond to requests for comment. Some of these surveillance products were listed in a Huawei online catalogue as of this month. Others have been removed from it but still showed up in government procurement documents or patent filings this year under the brand names of Huawei’s partner companies. The Huawei slides shed light on the company’s role in five surveillance activities in China: voice recording analysis, detention center monitoring, location tracking of political individuals of interest, police surveillance in the Xinjiang region, and corporate tracking of employees and customers.
1. Voice recording analysis
This marketing presentation shows Huawei pitching its technology to assist authorities in analyzing voice recordings for national security purposes. (The term “national security” is broad in China, encompassing political dissent, religious gatherings, Hong Kong and Taiwan policy, ethnic relations and economic stability.)
This presentation, dated 2018, introduces the “iFlytek Voiceprint Management Platform,” co-developed by Huawei and iFlytek, a Chinese artificial-intelligence company. The system can identify individuals by comparing the sound of their voice against a large database of recorded “voiceprints.”
The slide above shows a first step to “extract or obtain the voice audio of the target,” without details of how that is accomplished. Another slide lists audio from “phone recordings” and “smartphone apps” as inputs. It’s unclear from the presentation if Huawei and iFlytek are involved in obtaining the voice audio or if the customer obtains it. IFlytek didn’t respond to questions.
IFlytek was one of 28 entities sanctioned by the Commerce Department in October 2019 for human rights violations against Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority in China, following reports by some Uyghurs that they were forced to make recordings of themselves speaking.
2. Prison and detention center monitoring
This marketing presentation appears to show that Huawei helped design some technical underpinnings for China’s controversial reeducation and labor programs for detainees.
These programs raised international alarm starting in 2017, because of a sweeping drive against Uyghurs. Former detainees have alleged they were held without charges, tortured and required to work in factories as a condition of release. Similar practices have long been in place in China as part of punishment for political prisoners, but few details have emerged of how multinational companies are involved.
This product, named the “Huawei and Hewei Smart Prison Unified Platform,” is a comprehensive prison surveillance system co-developed with another Chinese company, Shanghai Hewei Technology. In addition to physical security aspects such as video cameras and smart gates, the product includes software for managing the schedules of detainees, including their attendance of ideological reeducation classes and prison labor shifts, according to screenshots in the presentation.
The slide above shows a long list of functions that can be covered by the prison monitoring software, including “reeducation,” “manufacturing labor” and “analysis and evaluation of reeducation efficacy.”
Screenshots of the software showed detainees scheduled for cultural, technical and “ideological education.” The software also could track production plans, revenue from prison labor and evaluations of the effects of labor reeducation, according to screenshots in the presentation. It was not clear if the schedules in the screenshots were sampled from real prisons in China or if they were mock-ups.
The presentation said this technology has been implemented in prisons in Inner Mongolia and Shanxi province, according to slides listing “success cases,” as well as in “jiedusuo,” or detention centers specifically for drug offenders, in the Xinjiang region.
Hewei declined to comment.
3. Location tracking
This surveillance system was touted as being able to help authorities track “political persons of interest” and other targets, including criminal suspects, by pinpointing the location of their electronic devices, tracking them with facial recognition surveillance cameras and other measures.
The marketing PowerPoint presentation titled “Huawei and PCI-Suntek Technology Video Cloud Big Data Joint Solution” also says that it can help identify new suspects by analyzing a range of surveillance data.
While these kinds of tracking systems are used by police around the world, there has been growing apprehension in the United States that the flaws of these technologies — such as higher incidence of mistaken identity among ethnic minorities — could result in wrongful prosecutions, especially with limited regulation.
The slide mentions “WiFi” and “MAC,” which surveillance experts say is probably a reference to tracking a smartphone’s location via a unique identifier called a MAC address. The addresses can be intercepted over WiFi by specialized devices used by police. A woman who answered the investor relations line at PCI-Suntek said the company would not comment on media reports.
The presentation says the system is in use by the public security department of Guangdong, China’s most populous province.
4. Xinjiang surveillance
The slides also detail how Huawei equipment was used in China’s far west Xinjiang region.
The Xinjiang government’s sweeping campaign against Uyghurs has drawn international denunciation, and Huawei has faced questions for years about whether its equipment was used in the crackdown. A Huawei executive resigned in response to a Washington Post report in 2020 about a “Uyghur alarm” the company tested that could send an alert to police when it identified a member of the ethnic minority native to the region.
Huawei executives have mostly deflected questions about how its products are used in Xinjiang, saying it did not supply the region directly. “That is not actually one of our projects,” Huawei’s global cybersecurity chief, John Suffolk, said, when asked by a British parliamentary committee in 2019 about Xinjiang surveillance systems using Huawei equipment. “It is done via a third party.”
“We sell technology all around the world, but we don’t operate it. We don’t know how our customers choose to operate it,” Alykhan Velshi, Huawei Canada’s vice president of corporate affairs, said last year, when asked by Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Radio about its surveillance technology sales in Xinjiang.
He added: “Certainly what’s happening in Xinjiang causes me a great deal of concern, as it should cause everyone who is concerned about human rights abroad, but Huawei selling to customers who may sell to customers who may do something? That, to me, is a different issue entirely.”
But Xinjiang surveillance projects are highlighted in several of the presentations, with the Huawei logo on each slide, though the slides do not mention the Uyghur ethnic minority. In one titled “One Person One File Solution High-Level Report,” the company’s technology is touted as having helped public security in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, capture a number of criminal suspects.
The presentation said the system had been in use in Urumqi since 2017, a time frame coinciding with the mass detentions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
This “One Person One File” facial recognition solution was co-developed by Huawei and DeepGlint, or Beijing Geling Shentong Information Technology, a start-up sanctioned by the Commerce Department in July for alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. DeepGlint declined to comment.
Other presentations said Huawei equipment was in use in surveillance camera systems in other Xinjiang cities, highways and detention centers.
5. Corporate monitoring
Not all of Huawei’s surveillance products were made for government use. Some were also designed for corporate settings, including to catch employees slacking off or identify customers in retail stores.
This “Smart Service Center Joint Solution” co-developed by Huawei and Nanjing-based 4D Vector could map employees’ movements and send an alert if they appear to be sleeping, absent from their desks or playing on their phones. The camera could also be trained onto customers, analyzing their demographic based on facial scans and counting how many times a person returns to the store. 4D Vector didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“It identifies customers’ portraits as they walk by, such as gender, clothing, occupation, etc., and accurately delivers specific product introductions to different customers,” the presentation said.
Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a New York-based privacy advocacy group, said the features of Huawei’s workplace biometric tracking go beyond what he is aware of in the United States, though “this is something that organizers and labor movements are quite concerned about, in the future.”
Last year, Microsoft and Zoom removed functions from their software that tracked employee attentiveness and productivity, after public backlash. Amazon has come under fire for using AI-enabled cameras, wristbands and other devices to surveil its employees. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
In China, too, such corporate surveillance is becoming controversial. On World Consumer Rights Day in March, Chinese state media denounced several foreign companies, including BMW and U.S. bathroom fixture brand Kohler, for tracking customers with facial recognition systems similar to the Huawei-4D Vector one.
In October, Huawei and other major Chinese tech companies made public pledges that they would not abuse facial recognition and other surveillance technologies.
Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.