The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and at least one other US university have research partnerships with a Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) company that has business ties with police in China’s Xinjiang region, where a sweeping crackdown on Uighurs has drawn international condemnation.
A 2016 government procurement announcement named a subsidiary of iFlytek Co (科大訊飛) as the sole supplier of 25 “voiceprint” collection systems to police in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang.
Another iFlytek subsidiary signed a “strategic cooperation framework agreement” with Xinjiang’s prison administration bureau, according to a May 2017 company blog post on social media platform WeChat.
Illustration: Louise Ting
Authorities can use voiceprint technology, which captures the unique signatures of a person’s voice, to help track and identify people, human rights activists say.
Reporters found no evidence that any of the universities were directly involved in creating technology for iFlytek (科大訊飛), or that their work was intended for use in Xinjiang, where Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, are kept under tight surveillance, including in “re-education camps.”
Still, some US universities are taking a closer look at their collaborations with Chinese technology companies in light of the US-China trade conflict, Washington’s scrutiny of telecommunications equipment maker Huawei Technologies Co (華為) and reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
MIT, for instance, announced in April that it would sever ties with Huawei and rival ZTE Corp (中興通訊), which the US government says are a security risk.
Other institutions, including the University of California, Berkeley, have also halted funding from Huawei for all research partnerships.
iFlytek declined to comment on its business with China’s security agencies in Xinjiang and elsewhere in the country.
In a statement sent via WeChat, a representative said that “some of the cooperation and content relates to security matters.”
The company added that the research at MIT is “based on the common understanding of using artificial intelligence to build a beautiful world” and that iFlytek is a “socially responsible company.”
MIT last year announced a five-year agreement under which iFlytek would help underwrite three research projects at the university’s renowned Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).
The projects relate to AI in healthcare, speech recognition and what CSAIL described in its announcement as creating “more human-like AI.”
“CSAIL understands and has considered the concerns that have been raised about this work, but [we] decided it was nevertheless appropriate to continue, because the results of all three projects can be published in open scientific literature and the research is not expected to have immediate applications,” lab spokesman Adam Conner-Simons said in an e-mail.
MIT researcher Randall Davis said that iFlytek had not interfered with his healthcare-focused research, which relates to using AI-powered analysis to help diagnose cognitive decline.
“We want a system that really understands what you’re talking about or what you really want by the look on your face,” said Davis, a professor of engineering and computer science.
iFlytek had not sent anyone to work in his lab and does not have exclusive access to the results of his research, he added.
Dana Penney, director of neuropsychology at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Massachustetts, who is working with CSAIL, said that the research was “of the highest ethical and professional standard.”
Jim Glass, who is doing language-related research at MIT, said that iFlytek had not interfered with his team’s work.
Joshua Tenenbaum, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences who is also conducting research at MIT as part of the partnership with iFlytek, did not respond to requests for comment.
In November 2017, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology named iFlytek, founded in 1999, a national champion in voice-related AI.
State-owned telecommunications operator China Mobile Ltd (中國移動) is iFlytek’s largest shareholder, with a 12.85 percent stake, according to its annual report for last year that was released in April.
A procurement announcement from Kashgar’s public security bureau, dated May 13, 2016, lists a wholly owned subsidiary of iFlytek, iFlytek Intelligent Information Technology Co Ltd, as a supplier of 25 voiceprint collection systems.
Reporters could not verify with iFlytek or Xinjiang authorities whether the contract had been fulfilled.
On May 3, 2017, another iFlytek subsidiary, the name of which translates to “Xinjiang iFlytek,” signed the strategic agreement with the Xinjiang prison administration bureau to cooperate on interpreting and translating human speech and judicial documents, according to a post dated May 6, 2017, on an iFlytek company blog.
The Xinjiang government did not respond to a request for comment about either of the documents.
The Xinjiang prison bureau also did not reply to a request for comment and referred the request to the Xinjiang propaganda department. The propaganda department did not respond to a request for comment.
Chinese government procurement databases contain 31 other documents naming iFlytek Intelligent Information Technology or a previous name for the same company as a supplier of voiceprint-related products or services to 25 police departments in China and the Chinese Ministry of Public Security between 2014 and last year.
Most documents were from police departments in Anhui Province in eastern China where iFlytek is based.
Eight police departments and the Ministry of Public Security confirmed that they had used or were still using iFlytek voiceprint-related technology; nine could not be reached or referred the requests to other departments that could not be reached; five said they were unaware or unclear about such contracts; and three declined to comment.
Gao Kang, a police official in Jixi County, Anhui province, said that his department had purchased iFlytek voiceprint collection equipment in 2015 and was still using it.
“Suspected criminals or people suspected of having broken the law must have their voiceprints collected when they enter our case-processing area,” he said by telephone.
Human Rights senior researcher Watch Maya Wang (王松蓮) said that she and a colleague in May last year interviewed people in Xinjiang who had been taken to a police station and asked to read a newspaper, sing a song or tell a story in front of a machine that appeared to be recording them. iFlytek declined to comment on whether this was its technology.
China is holding more than 1 million people in detention camps in Xinjiang, activists say.
The authorities have deployed a range of biometric technologies to track the population.
China has said that its actions are justified by a need to clamp down on Islamist extremism, and in March, the Xinjiang governor called the camps “boarding schools.”
Although the MIT donation is the latest in a series iFlytek has made in the past few years for research, the company has other collaborations in North America.
In October 2015, York University in Toronto, Canada, announced that iFlytek had given the university’s Lassonde School of Engineering US$1.5 million to create a neural computing and machine learning laboratory, and to endow a professorship.
Yanni Dagonas, a York University representative, said in an e-mail that iFlytek’s 2015 gift supported existing research, that the results of the research are made public, and that the research is not related to voiceprint technology.
“York does not accept gifts when a condition of such acceptance would result in an abridgement of academic freedom or integrity,” the statement read.
The university added that it was unaware of the company’s business in Xinjiang.
In April 2017, Rutgers Business School announced that it had accepted US$1 million from iFlytek for a five-year effort to create a big data laboratory exploring data mining and “business intelligence,” among other things, according to the school’s Web site.
The school, in a statement, called the work “research in data-mining methods that could be used by the company to improve its marketing effectiveness.”
It said that the agreement had been ended mutually in February, without saying why.
In its annual report for last year, iFlytek touted what it called “strategic cooperation” with Princeton University.
The partnership covers applied and computational mathematics, it said in a post on its Web site that was inaccessible on Wednesday.
Princeton spokesman Ben Chang confirmed in a statement that iFlytek had made “a gift to support basic research conducted by one faculty member,” but said there was no strategic cooperation agreement.
Faculty must follow a due diligence process before signing agreements, he added.
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