MIT has canceled a research contract with a Chinese artificial intelligence firm linked to human rights abuses against Uighurs and China’s military buildup.
White House technology chief Michael Kratsios praised the Massachusetts school on Friday for ending a cooperative research agreement with iFLYTEK, the suspect Chinese technology firm.
“We thank @MIT for making the right call and standing up for American values,” Mr. Kratsios tweeted Friday. “Other institutions should follow their lead and cut ties with nefarious Chinese tech companies that violate human rights on the @CommerceGov Entity List.”
The Commerce Department list designates foreign companies that are engaged in activities contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interests. The company iFLYTEK was added to the list in October along with 27 other Chinese agencies and companies.
The department said in October that the entities were put on the list because they had been “implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups” in China’s Xinjiang region. Human rights groups refer to the region as Chinese-occupied East Turkestan.
Companies and organizations on the list are restricted from trading and doing business with American companies and institutions.
iFLYTEK is believed to have taken part in a human surveillance system in Xinjiang that is part of what critics say is China’s mass repression of ethnic Uighurs and other minorities. China has set up a large network of concentration camps where more than 1 million people are being held.
China has denied the minorities are being repressed and said the camps are for unspecified reeducation.
Mr. Kratsios said he traveled to Boston in November to warn about Americans doing business with China with companies linked to human rights abuses on the entities list.
“U.S. companies, investors, entrepreneurs, and universities alike must not allow their tech and capital to be used as tools of repression!,” he tweeted at the time.
Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, identified iFLYTEK in August as working closely with China’s Public Security Bureau in developing a pilot surveillance system. The technology allows security police to automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations, she stated in a Washington Post op-ed piece.
A White House report on China trade practices published in 2018 states that iFLYTEK is a prominent state-funded Chinese AI startup company which supports the country’s large-scale military modernization.
“iFLYTEK operates from the Anhui Hefei High-tech Industry Development Zone, one of at least 28 [Ministry of Industry and Information Technology] designated national-level [military-civilian fusion] bases,” the report said adding that the based “seek to foster development of China’s high-tech industry to support military modernization and economic development.”
The fusion program was funded with $302 million in 2016 for overseas acquisitions.
Other Chinese companies on the Commerce blacklist include Dahua and Hikvision, which make surveillance cameras that are used in the mass surveillance program.
An MIT spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Maria Zuber, MIT vice president of research, told Wired magazine, which first reported the contract cancellation: “We take very seriously concerns about national security and economic security threats from China and other countries, and human rights issues.”
The university ended its ties to iFLYTEK in February after a review based on tighter guidelines for receiving funding from companies in China, Wired reported, noting that some students and staff opposed the university’s relationship with the Chinese company.
In June 2018, MIT announced plans for a five-year project with iFLYTEK for research that included AI work on machine learning and applied voice-recognition. The amount of money from the Chinese was not disclosed.
The company did not return an email seeking comment.
The Justice Department under the Trump administration has engaged in an aggressive program of prosecutions and other activities aimed at cutting off China’s acquisition of U.S. technology. The White House in a report on Chinese “economic aggression” in 2017 estimated that China was obtained both legally and covertly between $250 billion and $600 billion annually.