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Japan Considers Restricting the Export of Facial Recognition Tech to China

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Published: January 5, 2022
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TOKYO, JAPAN - FEB. 28: An employee demonstrates the facial recognition system for the NEC SMART STORE at the NEC Corporation headquarters on February 28, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Tokyo wants to prevent its facial recognition tech from falling into the hands of Chinese entities. (Image: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images for NEC Corporation)

Following in the footsteps of the United States, Japan is considering limiting exports of AI-powered facial recognition tech to China in a bid to prevent such technologies from being used to monitor and persecute ethnic minorities in the country. Beijing is known to use facial recognition to control the movement of Uyghurs, an ethnic minority from the Xinjiang region.

A report from Nikkei Asia revealed that Tokyo plans on partnering with Europe and the United States on planning out the export restriction. Japan’s foreign exchange laws strictly regulate the export of commercial products and weapons that have potential military applications, threatening international security and world peace. Such sales have to be approved by the trade minister.

“Some argue the language of the law can be interpreted to cover human rights. But further discussion is needed to determine whether technologies that contribute to rights violations can be restricted in this way. Tokyo will hold talks with American and European partners to consider what products and technologies pose a threat. Products such as circuit boards are already subject to export restrictions as they could be diverted to military use,” according to the media outlet. 

Koichi Hagiuda, Japan’s minister for economy, trade, and industry, said that the government is looking at how the EU approaches the issue to use as a reference on how Tokyo will proceed with restricting exports of facial recognition tech. 

Tokyo’s decision on the issue will greatly affect local companies like NEC that provide powerful facial recognition tech. The company has sold over 1,000 biometric ID systems in over 70 nations and has been at the top in facial recognition accuracy rankings several times.

The EU and the U.S. both took action last year to restrict the sale of surveillance equipment to China. The EU restrictions became active in September. It requires authorities to examine relevant transactions on a case-by-case basis.

In December, Washington sanctioned eight entities, prohibiting U.S. individuals and entities from investing in them. These entities were accused of “actively” supporting biometric surveillance and tracking of minorities in China, specifically the Uyghurs. The sanctioned companies include facial recognition tech companies like Cloudwalk, Megvii, Netposa, and Yitu.

“Today’s action highlights how private firms in China’s defense and surveillance technology sectors are actively cooperating with the government’s efforts to repress members of ethnic and religious minority groups… Treasury remains committed to ensuring that the U.S. financial system and American investors are not supporting these activities,” Brian E. Nelson, the Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said in a statement on Dec. 16.

Japan’s move to restrict facial recognition tech exports comes as the technology is getting widely implemented in the country itself. Ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the administration had installed facial recognition cameras. 

Since March last year, the use of facial recognition technology by police has increased even though critics warned that the move risks turning the country into a surveillance state. The Japanese police are following the rules set by the National Public Safety Commission when it comes to handling data involved in the use of the tech.

Commercially, Japan is moving ahead with a facial recognition payment system, according to a report by Biometric Update. “Thirty-one companies from a variety of industries in Japan have formed a group to consider optimal legal and regulatory frameworks for systems that allow consumers to pay for products and services by looking into a camera. Users will register their face biometrics through a website to use the system,” says the report.