Western academics are helping the Chinese government to monitor the movements of its citizens with increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology that’s underpinned by artificial intelligence, according to a report from The Financial Times published on Saturday.
The report from the FT’s Madhumita Murgia states that at least nine academic papers have been co-written by US academics alongside firms that either sell surveillance technology to the Chinese government, or alongside institutions with links to nation’s military, such as China’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT).
Chinese citizens are some of the most watched in the world. There are over 100 million CCTV cameras across the nation and the government uses them to track and control where people go and what they do.
Human rights campaigners have taken particular issue with how the Chinese government is using surveillance technology to target Uighurs in the region of Xinjiang, and there are widespread concerns that Beijing has gone too far in terms of surveillance — references to a Big Brother state or George Orwell’s “1984” are common.
The research partnerships identified by the FT leave the western academics complicit in China’s human rights abuses, possibly inadvertently.
The researchers in the US have links to organisations like Nokia Bell Labs, Princeton University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of Sydney in Australia. All of them declined to comment, according to the FT.
Interestingly, four of the US academics are affiliated with Google.
Thomas Funkhouser, a Google senior staff research scientist, worked with two visiting NUDT scientists when he was a visiting professor at Princeton University last year. The trio looked at how computer vision research can be used in unmanned drones and autonomous underwater vehicles. Their paper can be found here. Funkhouser declined to comment.
Google is reportedly distancing itself from studies where its staff teamed up with researchers and corporations in China.
“These were academic papers written by researchers at universities — Google is not involved with these projects and has no partnerships with the Chinese universities in question,” a Google spokesperson reportedly said.
The US and China are dominating the world’s AI “race” but China is investing heavily in order to get an edge. It’s also sending scientists to western universities in order to obtain overseas expertise in AI.
Alex Joske, a researcher studying the Chinese Communist party at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, reportedly said there are thousands of scientists with links to the Chinese army that have travelled to western universities in recent years.
“Scientists like. . .those who visited Princeton are among the thousands of [Chinese army] officers and cadres who have been sent abroad as PhD students or visiting scholars in the past decade.
“I think it’s really concerning because the universities have no way of ensuring the tech they’re helping these [entities] develop and improve are going to be used in ethical ways.