At the beginning of last year, the Bangladesh government has begun weighing a proposal from an unnamed Chinese company to build a smart city in the Bay of Bengal with artificial intelligence-enhanced infrastructure. Construction on the high-tech metropolis has yet to begin, but if it goes ahead, it could include facial recognition software that can use public cameras to identify missing persons or track down criminals in crowds – capabilities that are already standard in many Chinese cities.
According to a study by scientists from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published last week by the famous Brookings think tank, this project is one of those that make China the world leader in the export of facial recognition.
The report found that Chinese companies lead the world in facial recognition exports, with 201 export deals using the technology, followed by US firms with 128 deals. China also leads the AI industry overall, with 250 out of 1,636 AI export deals in 136 importing countries. The second largest exporter was the US with 215 AI deals.
The report argues that these exports could allow other governments to engage in increased surveillance, potentially harming citizens’ human rights. “The fact that China is exporting to these countries may make them more autocratic, when in fact they may become more democratic,” said Martin Berraggio, an MIT economist who participated in the study and whose work focuses on the relationship between such emerging technologies. , such as artificial intelligence, public policy and macroeconomics.
Facial recognition technology has many practical applications, including unlocking smartphones, authenticating apps, and finding friends in social media messages. The MIT and Harvard researchers focused on deals related to so-called smart city technology, where facial recognition is often deployed to enhance video surveillance. The study used information on global surveillance projects from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and data from Chinese AI companies.
In recent years, US lawmakers and presidents have expressed concern that China is gaining an edge over the US in artificial intelligence technology. The report appears to offer strong evidence of one area where this shift has already occurred.
“This reinforces why we need to set parameters around this type of technology,” said Alexandra Seymour, a research fellow at the Center for a New American Security, which studies the political implications of artificial intelligence.
In the US, there is a growing bipartisan interest in limiting Chinese technology around the world. Under President Trump, the US government has introduced regulations aimed at restricting the use of Huawei’s 5G technology in the US and elsewhere, and has targeted Chinese AI firms with a chip embargo. The Biden administration has imposed a tougher chip blockade that prevents Chinese companies from accessing advanced chips and semiconductor manufacturing technologies, and has imposed sanctions on Chinese suppliers of facial recognition used to monitor Uyghur Muslims.
Further efforts to limit exports of facial recognition systems from China could possibly take the form of sanctions against countries that import the technology, Seymour said. But she adds that the US should also set an example for the rest of the world to regulate the use of facial recognition.
The fact that the US is the world’s second largest exporter of facial recognition technology risks undermining the idea promoted by the US government that American technology naturally embodies the values of freedom and democracy.