early last year, The Bangladeshi government has begun weighing an unnamed Chinese company’s proposal to build a smart city in the Bay of Bengal, with infrastructure augmented by artificial intelligence. Construction of the high-tech metropolis has yet to begin, but if it proceeds, it could include facial recognition software that can use public cameras to identify missing persons or track criminals in crowds — features that are already standard in many Chinese cities.
The project is one of those that have made China a world leader in facial recognition exports, according to a study by scholars from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published last week by the prestigious think tank Brookings Institution.
The report found that Chinese companies lead the world in facial recognition exports, with 201 export deals involving the technology, followed by US companies with 128 deals. China also leads in AI overall, with 250 of the 1,636 export deals involving some form of AI going to 136 importing countries. The second largest exporter was the US with 215 AI deals.
The report argues that these exports could enable additional surveillance by other governments, potentially undermining the human rights of citizens. “The fact that China is exporting to these countries may make them more authoritarian, when in fact they may become more democratic,” said Martin Bellaja, an MIT economist who worked on the study. His work focuses on the relationship between the new countries. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, government policy, and macroeconomics.
Facial recognition technology has many practical applications, including unlocking smartphones, providing authentication in apps and finding friends in social media posts. Researchers at MIT and Harvard have focused on deals involving so-called smart city technology, where facial recognition is often deployed to enhance video surveillance. The study used information from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Global Surveillance Project and data collected from Chinese artificial intelligence companies.
In recent years, U.S. lawmakers and the president have expressed concern that China is gaining an edge over the U.S. in AI technology. The report appears to provide solid evidence for one area where this shift has already occurred.
“This supports why we need to set the parameters around this type of technology,” said Alexandra Seymour, an associate fellow who studies the policy implications of artificial intelligence at the Center for a New American Security.
There is growing bipartisan interest in restricting Chinese technology globally. Under President Trump, the U.S. government has imposed rules aimed at restricting the use of Huawei’s 5G technology in the U.S. and elsewhere, and imposed a chip embargo against the Chinese artificial intelligence company. The Biden administration has imposed a more comprehensive chip blockade, preventing Chinese companies from obtaining cutting-edge chips or semiconductor manufacturing technology, and has imposed sanctions on Chinese suppliers of facial recognition used to monitor Uighur Muslims.
Efforts to further limit China’s exports of facial recognition could take the form of sanctions on countries that import the technology, Seymour said. But she added that the U.S. also needs to set an example for the rest of the world in regulating the use of facial recognition.
The fact that the U.S. is the world’s second-largest exporter of facial recognition technology could undermine the U.S. government’s idea that U.S. technology naturally embodies liberal and democratic values.