by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology took funding from a twice-sanctioned Chinese company to advance aspects of facial recognition technology that the Chinese have reportedly used to track and imprison Uyghurs, a Washington Free Beacon review found.
China’s largest facial recognition startup, SenseTime—founded by an MIT graduate, Xiao’ou Tang, who now resides in mainland China—donated an undisclosed amount of money to MIT in 2018, the university said in a press release at the time.
A year later, in 2019, the New York Times reported that SenseTime’s technology is part of a “vast, secret system” the Chinese use to “track and control Uyghurs.” The Trump administration went on to blacklist SenseTime in the fall of 2019, after MIT had accepted the money, citing the company’s role in the “repression, mass arbitrary detention and high-technology surveillance” of the country’s Muslim minority in Xinjiang.
MIT said at the time that it would review its relationship with SenseTime but did not return the cash.
MIT used SenseTime’s money to fund research projects that resulted in 20 papers that focused on or mentioned “neural networks,” the Free Beacon found. Neural networks—a term of art for the artificial intelligence method that teaches computers to process data like the human brain—are used in facial recognition technology, according to industry experts. Fourteen of the papers, meanwhile, covered image data or image recognition algorithms. And one of the SenseTime-funded research papers even featured authors associated with Zhejiang University, which works on classified projects for China’s military.
While it’s unclear exactly how SenseTime may have used the research produced by MIT, the Chinese company sent a flurry of patent applications during the same time period its American partner published research.