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Huawei official speaks out on why he resigned after The Post reported the tech giant had worked on a ‘Uighur alarm’

Tommy Zwicky, the face of Huawei in Denmark, says he could no longer look at himself in the mirror

A Huawei store in Beijing last month. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)
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A Huawei executive who resigned following revelations of the Chinese tech giant’s work on a “Uighur alarm” system that could track minorities is speaking out for the first time, saying the company failed to take seriously matters of public surveillance and human rights.

Tommy Zwicky, a vice president of communications for the company’s Denmark office, resigned in December after a Washington Post report detailing Huawei’s test of face-scanning software that police could use to identify Uighurs, the predominantly Muslim minority group that Chinese authorities have detained by the hundreds of thousands in reeducation camps.

Zwicky said he had pushed the company to speak out more forcefully against the potentially oppressive technology and that he chose to abruptly resign because he believed the company was only interested in making the story go away.

“I was told very clearly, ‘We will not admit we made a mistake,’ ” he said. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I stayed.”

Zwicky spoke with The Post on Monday, the first day he said he was no longer contractually bound. Huawei spokesman Glenn Schloss declined to comment on Zwicky’s remarks but repeated the company’s insistence that it doesn’t support discrimination and had taken The Post’s report seriously.

Zwicky, a former journalist and host of a Danish children’s TV news show, had been hired six months earlier to serve as the face of Huawei’s communications in Denmark, where the company has pushed to negotiate lucrative opportunities building the 5G mobile networks that could power the future Internet.

Zwicky had worked to defend Huawei against allegations that the company fueled oppressive surveillance measures. But after The Post and the research organization IPVM revealed documents detailing the artificial-intelligence camera system, Zwicky said, “I read it and I immediately had that knot in the pit of my stomach. … I was always daring Huawei’s detractors to come up with any proof. And here it was.”

Huawei tested AI software that could recognize Uighur minorities and alert police, report says

China has responded to sporadic terrorist attacks in recent years across its northwestern region of Xinjiang with a brutal crackdown in which more than 1 million Uighurs are detained in sprawling camps.

Chinese officials say the camps provide work and educational opportunities for potential extremists, but U.S. authorities have cited reports of forced labor, torture and other systematic human rights abuses.

Huawei is one of the world’s biggest smartphone makers and a juggernaut pushing to lead the global rollout of new 5G mobile networks. Technical experts said Huawei’s connection to an ethnicity-recognition system suggested the technology could be gaining more widespread acceptance within China.

After the story’s publication, Zwicky pushed for answers in an internal chat room for the company’s communications officials in the Nordic region, saying it represented a “blatant violation of human rights.”

“I told them we need to take this seriously,” he said. “Even if this doesn’t become a big story now, I’m not going to stand for it. This is going to bite you in the a-- down the line. It’s not going to go away.”

But shortly afterward, the company distributed a statement full of what Zwicky called “template nonanswers,” saying it “opposes discrimination of all types” and was “investigating the issues raised within.”

Believing the company did not intend to take responsibility, Zwicky said he made up his mind about resigning, adding, “I’m not going to lose my credibility. You can only lose that once.”

Huawei worked on several surveillance systems promoted to identify ethnicity, documents show

On a Sunday after the story’s publication, he said, he met with the head of Huawei’s Danish office and handed in his resignation. The next day, when Danish Broadcasting Corporation journalist Henrik Moltke asked him on Twitter to explain the reports, Zwicky said in a since-deleted tweet, “I can not, which is why I have resigned my position.”

The issue, Zwicky said, highlighted a deeper tension for Huawei as it seeks to secure business in the West while retaining its roots in China, where the ruling Communist Party has pushed companies to help implement massive surveillance programs that have faced broad criticism in the West.

In December, The Post revealed a series of Huawei-linked surveillance products that were marketed as being able to suppress potential protests or predict individuals’ ethnicities. Researchers at IPVM last month published patent applications written by Huawei and other Chinese tech companies that offered similar minority-detection features.

In a separate interview Monday with the Danish news magazine Journalisten, Zwicky said Huawei had been pushing to deliver “a technical answer to an ethical question.”

“I honestly don’t think they believe this was a big mistake,” he told The Post. “If they did, we would have handled it better.”

But on Sunday, Huawei’s executive vice president for the Nordic region, Kenneth Fredriksen, confirmed for the first time that the company had tested and patented ethnicity-detection systems.

“It was never our intention to contribute to any discriminatory behavior toward minorities,” Fredriksen said to the Danish newspaper Politiken. “We have learned from this case that we must be even more careful about how we make our technology available.”

China is building vast new detention centers for Muslims in Xinjiang

Fredriksen said there is “reason to be concerned” about the situation in Xinjiang but added that he does not believe Huawei is “involved in human rights violations.” The company, he added, had ceased work on tests or patents related to ethnicity detection.

“Our mistake is that we did not have control mechanisms that ensured a higher standard for quality control of these projects, where this kind of technology is involved,” Fredriksen said.

Zwicky’s resignation further complicated matters for Huawei, which has spent heavily to bolster its image and defend against accusations from the United States and other international authorities that it has helped advance China’s repressive surveillance and detention of minority groups.

In Europe, Huawei’s biggest growth market outside China, The Post report prompted one of its celebrity endorsers, the French soccer player Antoine Griezmann, to abruptly end his sponsorship deal.

Griezmann, a star of the 2018 World Cup tournament, said in an Instagram post to his more than 30 million followers that he wanted Huawei to “take concrete actions as quickly as possible to condemn this mass repression, and to use its influence to contribute to the respect of human and women’s rights in society.”

Zwicky, 44, lives in Copenhagen and remains out of work. He said he has been encouraged by messages of support and is trying now to educate himself more on the plight of the Uighurs in China, which U.S. officials have described as “something close to” genocide.

He said he hopes his resignation can refocus attention on the issue, adding, “Maybe then it will be worth it.”