China Exports Facial Scan Tech to Zimbabwe, Launches First “AI Technology Entry to Africa”

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1:37 AM HKT, Tue April 17, 2018 2 mins read

Global Times dropped a bomb the other day that has yet to properly explode in the burgeoning Chinese AI scaremongering echo chamber:

China is exporting facial recognition technology to Zimbabwe as part of the Belt and Road initiative, which marks China’s first artificial intelligence (AI) technology entry to Africa.

Cloudwalk, a company based in South China’s Guangdong Province, has signed a strategic cooperation framework agreement with the Zimbabwean government for a mass facial recognition project, according to a statement sent to the Global Times by Cloudwalk on Thursday [April 12].

The system will be applied to areas including financial services and “intelligent security,” and has been dubbed “Eagle Eye” (鹰眼 yingyan). The tech being shipped out by Cloudwalk consists of an integrated biometrics platform that incorporates a facial recognition engine, an AI big data analysis platform, infrared binocular cameras, face scanning stations, and more, according to comments made by the company to the Science and Technology Daily last week (link in Chinese).

Facial scan technology is already in wide use within China, as both a payment method and law enforcement tool. In recent months, surveillance systems with AI facial recognition technology were instrumental in nabbing everyone from wanted fugitives to truant students. Just last week, facial scan technology was used to identify and apprehend one suspect out of a sea of 60,000 faces at a concert for pop star Jacky Cheung in the southeastern city of Nanchang.

On the technical side of things, Cloudwalk faces some challenges in exporting its system to Zimbabwe. The company is “recalibrating the system for darker skin metrics,” Cloudwalk employee Zhou Yuye told the Global Times. Other companies have run into serious problems on this front: Apple received criticism soon after the launch of its flagship model, the iPhone X, after the device couldn’t distinguish a Chinese user’s face from her colleague’s:

A Chinese woman, identified only by her surname Yan, was offered two refunds from Apple for her new iPhone X, as the AI-powered facial recognition technology was unable to tell her and her other Chinese colleague apart.

Yan from Nanjing in east China, told local news outlet the Jiangsu Broadcasting Corporation that despite personally activating and configuring the facial recognition software, her female work colleague was able to get into both devices on every single attempt.

And in general, facial recognition technology is evidently really bad at identifying faces with darker skin. Quartz summarizes a recent MIT study on the subject:

In the paper, Joy Buolamwini of the MIT Media Lab and Timnit Gebru of Microsoft Research, discussed the results of a software evaluation carried out in April and May of last year. For it, they gathered a database of 1,270 faces, drawn from images of lawmakers in countries with high percentages of women in power. Three of the countries were in Africa, while three were Nordic countries.

The researchers then ran the images against facial recognition software from three providers—IBM, Microsoft, and China’s Megvii (identified in the paper by the name of its software, Face++)—to asses how accurately each recognized the gender of the person pictured. (The researchers said they worked with binary gender classifications because of limitations with the data they were working with.)

The team discovered that all three companies were more likely to correctly identify a subject as male or female if the subject had pale skin.

In addition to the technical challenges involved, the introduction of a Chinese-style facial scan surveillance system into Zimbabwe has already begun to raise privacy concerns among citizens there. Writing for Zimbabwean tech site Techzim, journalist Farai Mudzingwa reasonably concludes:

As always, when a surveillance tool is introduced we have to ask whether this tool might be used for nefarious purposes. In a country such as ours where there have been multiple human rights violations over the years I am genuinely concerned whether this technology will be used for greater good. Hopefully the facial recognition will not become a political tool used to hound opposition members.

The announcement follows Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s state visit to China at the start of this month, during which Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared he was ready “to jointly map out our future cooperation and write a new chapter in China-Zimbabwe relations for the benefit of our two peoples.”

Cover photo: “A staff member uses facial recognition technology developed by Cloudwalk to check a passenger at an airport” (


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