Biometric surveillance raises ethics concerns for China-U.S. AI industry sharing

Microsoft Research Asia co-wrote three papers on artificial intelligence and facial analysis with researchers associated with the Chinese military’s National University of Defense Technology last year, The Financial Times reports. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) says that makes the company complicit in human rights abuses carried out by the Chinese government.

A leak of sensitive data, including from facial recognition systems, from SenseNets in February led to accusations that Microsoft had partnered with the company to help repressive surveillance efforts in Xinjiang Province, which Microsoft denied.

“It is deeply disturbing that an American company would be actively working with the Chinese military to further build up the government’s surveillance network against its own people — an act that makes them complicit in aiding the Communist Chinese government’s totalitarian censorship apparatus and egregious human rights abuses,” Rubio told the Times.

“Microsoft’s researchers, who are often academics, conduct fundamental research with leading scholars and experts from around the world to advance our understanding of technology,” a spokesperson for the company responded in a statement to Business Insider. “In each case, the research is guided by our principles, fully complies with US and local laws, and the research is published to ensure transparency so that everyone can benefit from our work.”

The Chinese government recently defended its biometric surveillance program, saying it had led to 13,000 terrorism arrests over a relatively peaceful five-year period in Xinjiang Province. Facilities that have been called detention camps or re-education centers may hold up to 1.5 million ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

Research in the field has benefited significantly from collaboration between Chinese and American companies, University of Oxford researcher and Chinese AI industry expert Jeff Ding wrote in an AI industry newsletter summarized by MIT Technology Review.

Most researchers in China read English, and research from other countries is immediately translated into into Chinese, but the reverse is not the case, according to Ding, creating an imbalance. Ding notes that security companies, including facial recognition providers, make up the highest share of the country’s top 100 AI companies, and that while Chinese citizens may view privacy differently than many Americans, privacy is valued in China.

He notes that Chinese companies have been caught up in domestic privacy scandals, and that Chinese philosophers and academics have brought ethics considerations into the country’s national discourse.

Ding also claims that Westerners have an exaggerated opinion of the capabilities of Chinese AI companies, and that investigations by Chinese writers indicate less-sophisticated algorithms and smaller research teams than commonly believed. Chinese companies YITU and Megvii were big winners in the most recent release of NIST’s Ongoing FRVT 1:1 test for algorithm accuracy (PDF).

SenseNets, which is also part of the Chinese government’s Skynet Program, has gone to ground after the leak, pulling information from its website and declining an interview, South China Morning Post reports.

Skynet is a national surveillance system intended to fight and prevent crime with more than 20 million cameras installed in public spaces.

Information about SenseNets involvement with Skynet or police agencies has been removed from the company’s website, along with its partner page.

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