‘Radboud professor’s company supplied surveillance software to China’

30 Sep 2020

According to Amnesty International, the Wageningen company Noldus supplies software to China that can be used for surveillance of oppressed groups such as the Uyghurs. However, Director Lucas Noldus, professor by special appointment at Radboud University, states that type of abuse is impossible.

Anger, surprise, sadness: these are some of the emotions that the FaceReader software package from Noldus Information Technology can detect. University labs all over the world, from the US to China, use it in scientific behavioural research. On the basis of their own research, Amnesty International announced this week that the latter country poses a problem.

Noldus supplied products to several Chinese parties that have ties with security services. These include the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and Xinjiang Normal University. According to Amnesty International, there is now a risk that the Chinese authorities will misuse the software to detect lies during interrogations or surveillance, as in the case of oppressed Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.

Ethical Review

However, there are no issues according to Noldus Information Technology. ‘We forbid our software being used in that way; this is very explicitly stated in the contracts we conclude’, says Director Lucas Noldus when asked for a response by telephone. ‘Our sales policy and end-use statement — a statement of what the software is used for — have been discussed with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, customs, our embassy in Beijing, and various ethical experts.’
The software is also ‘subject to ethical review and used with the consent of participants and respect for their privacy,’ according to the company in a press release.

‘Lie detection is not possible with our software’

Noldus, who has also been Professor by special appointment of Behaviour, information technology and innovation at Radboud University for a year now, is appalled by the accusations. ‘Amnesty International is making serious allegations, but has not shown any concrete evidence of abuse. If there is any evidence or if it is ever provided, we can switch off the software remotely at the touch of a button. We would certainly do that in this case.’
More importantly, Noldus also told stated that FaceReader cannot even be used to track large groups. ‘You can only detect the emotions of someone sitting right in front of the camera in a lab setting.’ Lie detection is also impossible, according to the professor. ‘It has never been scientifically proven that this is possible by observing facial expressions.’

Stricter Rules

‘That explanation isn’t enough,’ says Amnesty International spokeswoman Yara Boff Tonella. ‘Noldus has not shown that they can rule out abuse, even though that is required internationally.’ The human rights organisation hopes that facial recognition will be subject to stricter regulations in the new export rules that the European Union is discussing this week.

Should you even want to supply behavioural research software to countries such as China? Noldus thinks so. ‘Should we instead deny 20% of the world’s population high-quality products? Let me be clear: we are also against human rights violations. But the minister-president said it himself: it is better to engage in discussion with countries such as China, and apply appropriate rules about the dual use of products (editor’s note: techniques that in theory can also be abused). We do this through our user agreements.’

Critical questions

Spokesman Martijn Gerritsen stated that the Amnesty report is no reason to reconsider Lucas Noldus’ position as professor by special appointment for the time being in the opinion of Radboud University. ‘Prior to the appointment of Lucas Noldus as professor by special appointment, critical questions regarding this were asked during the appointment procedure as well. He provided us with transparent and enlightening answers, just as he is doing now.’


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