Update (June 10th, 2019): After we published our story, Human Rights Watch clarified Face++'s relationship with IJOP. We've updated the story to reflect their new position. Separately, Alipay clarified that it no longer uses Face++ in its payment app.

Verifying your identity through facial recognition to unlock phones, make payments and authenticate bank transactions has become so mainstream we rarely think about the companies behind the tech. Chinese AI startup Megvii has become the world’s biggest provider of these services, but now it’s gotten into some hot water.

The company is accused of using its facial recognition for something more sinister than unlocking phones. Its technology has been connected with ethnic profiling and aiding human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region.

The link is now being used to argue the US should blacklist Megvii, joining Huawei on a list that bars US companies from dealing with foreign companies without approval. Huawei was placed on the list earlier this month with the US citing national security concerns and alleging Huawei violated sanctions on Iran.

Other companies facing similar scrutiny are facial recognition company Meiya Pico, speech recognition provider iFlytek and two surveillance camera makers Hikvision and Dahua.

Megvii’s tech is being used in various products, including smartphones from Xiaomi, Vivo and Lenovo. (Picture: Simon Song/SCMP)

Megvii’s trouble started with a report by Human Rights Watch. According to the report, recognition tech Face++ is found in an app called IJOP, which is used to log the supposed suspicious behavior of members of China’s Uygur Muslim minority. (In this case, suspicious behavior could mean things like avoiding your neighbors, spending too much time abroad and using too much electricity.)

Human Rights Watch later clarified the report. They noted that the Face++ code found in the app is "inoperable", and that Megvii "seems not to have collaborated" in its development. Megvii denies any relationship with IJOP.

A New York Times investigation also found that facial recognition systems used by Chinese police, including tech from Megvii, have become adept at singling out Uygurs based on appearance. Cloudwalk, one of Megvii’s competitors, actually advertised its profiling abilities on its official website.

Megvii may have been smarter. According to the investigation, the company warned its employees about discussing ethnic targeting in public.

Megvii has denied involvement, saying that it has no connection with the app used for policing in Xinjiang.

“Our solutions are not designed or customized to target or label ethnic groups,” Megvii told us. “Instead, they are designed to match identities of individuals to a given database.”

The company also said they require their clients not to weaponize their tech or use it for illegal purposes, including human rights abuses. However, the company has also said that it often doesn’t deal directly with government agencies, instead selling its tech through middlemen.

When asked about Xinjiang by the South China Morning Post, Megvii’s co-founder and chief executive Yin Qi said that “technology is definitely not to blame, definitely someone should be responsible.”

Who might that be? He didn’t elaborate.

Megvii’s co-founder and chief executive Yin Qi. (Picture: Simon Song/SCMP)

Megvii’s path from a small startup founded eight years ago by a couple of Beijing students to becoming a target of the Trump administration has been impressive. Much of the company’s achievements are less sinister than what current allegations suggest.

Smartphone companies Lenovo, Xiaomi and Vivo all use Megvii’s tech. The company’s Face++ facial recognition system is also used to power Alipay’s payment app when it first launched. (Alipay told us that the app now uses Alibaba's in-house facial recognition technology).

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)

Its tech can also be found in driver authentication systems for ride-hailing platform Didi, traffic analysis systems and IoT warehousing solutions.

The company is now valued at US$4 billion with investments from Bank of China Group Investment, Foxconn Technology and Alibaba. It has sold technology to Japan, South Korea and in Southeast Asia.

However things work out for Megvii, the company is now a part of the facial recognition debate. In the US, that conversation has revolved around Amazon’s Rekognition.

Amazon was criticized last year for providing its facial recognition tech to governments, raising privacy concerns and questions about the potential for law enforcement to target minorities. San Francisco was the first city to ban the use of facial recognition by police.

However, it’s likely that Chinese facial recognition companies and video surveillance sellers like Hikvision have become successful precisely because of their sales to the government. China has been working on a massive video surveillance project called Skynet. By 2022, China is expected to have 2.76 billion surveillance cameras in operation, according to IDC. That’s nearly two cameras for every person in the country.

In last year’s interview with Business Insider, Megvii's vice president Xie Yinan said that it’s up to the government to write the legal framework for how police should use facial recognition.

"We don’t have access to the data,” he said. “What we do is sell them a server [loaded with Face++]. That’s all.”