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Alibaba ‘dismayed’ by its cloud unit’s ethnicity detection algorithm

Chinese tech giants have drawn international criticism after research showed they have technologies that enable the authorities to profile Muslim Uyghurs.

The cloud computing unit of Alibaba, Alibaba Cloud, developed a facial recognition algorithm that can identify a person’s ethnicity or whether a person is “Uyghur”, according to research from surveillance industry publication IPVM.

China has repeatedly defended its controversial “vocational training programs” imposed upon its Muslim ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others, as part of what the government calls counter-terrorism efforts.

Alibaba said in a statement that it is “dismayed” to learn that Alibaba Cloud tested a technology that included “ethnicity as an algorithm” and that “racial or ethnic discrimination or profiling in any form violates Alibaba’s policies and values.”

“We never intended our technology to be used for and will not permit it to be used for targeting specific ethnic groups, and we have eliminated any ethnic tag in our product offering. This trial technology was not deployed by any customer. We do not and will not permit our technology to be used to target or identify specific ethnic groups,” the company added.

A security breach from last year revealed that a “smart city” surveillance system hosted on Alibaba Cloud could detect people’s ethnicity or label them Uyghur Muslim, TechCrunch reported earlier. At the time, Alibaba said as a public cloud provider, it “does not have the right to access the content in the customer database.”

IPVM also found earlier this month that Huawei and artificial intelligence unicorn Megvii, known for its facial recognition product Face++, jointly developed a technology that could alert the Chinese government when the system detected the face of a member from the Uyghur community.

As China’s tech upstarts seek overseas growth, they increasingly find themselves stuck between the demands of Beijing and international scrutiny over their stance on human rights issues.

Cloud computing is one of Alibaba’s fastest-growing segments and the giant is eyeing to attract more international customers. Last year, Alibaba Cloud was the biggest player in the Asia Pacific region and the third-largest Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) provider globally, according to research firm Gartner.

Alibaba’s cloud unit grew 60% year-over-year to account for nearly 10% of the firm’s revenues in the three months ended September. As of the quarter, approximately 60% of A-share listed companies, those that are based in mainland China and trade in RMB, are customers of Alibaba Cloud, the company claimed.

Alibaba to help Salesforce localize and sell in China

Salesforce, the 20-year-old leader in customer relationship management (CRM) tools, is making a foray into Asia by working with one of the country’s largest tech firms, Alibaba.

Alibaba will be the exclusive provider of Salesforce to enterprise customers in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and Salesforce will become the exclusive enterprise CRM software suite sold by Alibaba, the companies announced on Thursday.

The Chinese internet has for years been dominated by consumer-facing services such as Tencent’s WeChat messenger and Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace, but enterprise software is starting to garner strong interest from businesses and investors. Workflow automation startup Laiye, for example, recently closed a $35 million funding round led by Cathay Innovation, a growth-stage fund that believes “enterprise software is about to grow rapidly” in China.

The partners have something to gain from each other. Alibaba does not have a Salesforce equivalent serving the raft of small-and-medium businesses selling through its e-commerce marketplaces or using its cloud computing services, so the alliance with the American cloud behemoth will fill that gap.

On the other hand, Salesforce will gain sales avenues in China through Alibaba, whose cloud infrastructure and data platform will help the American firm “offer localized solutions and better serve its multinational customers,” said Ken Shen, vice president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, in a statement.

“More and more of our multinational customers are asking us to support them wherever they do business around the world. That’s why today Salesforce announced a strategic partnership with Alibaba,” said Salesforce in a statement.

Overall, only about 10% of Salesforce revenues in the three months ended April 30 originated from Asia, compared to 20% from Europe and 70% from the Americas.

Besides gaining client acquisition channels, the tie-up also enables Salesforce to store its China-based data at Alibaba Cloud. China requires all overseas companies to work with a domestic firm in processing and storing data sourced from Chinese users.

“The partnership ensures that customers of Salesforce that have operations in the Greater China area will have exclusive access to a locally-hosted version of Salesforce from Alibaba Cloud, who understands local business, culture and regulations,” an Alibaba spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Cloud has been an important growth vertical at Alibaba and nabbing a heavyweight ally will only strengthen its foothold as China’s biggest cloud service provider. Salesforce made some headway in Asia last December when it set up a $100 million fund to invest in Japanese enterprise startups and the latest partnership with Alibaba will see the San Francisco-based firm actually go after customers in Asia.