Early last year, Bangladeshi government started considering an offer from an unnamed Chinese company to build a A smart city on the Bay of Bengal with infrastructure enhanced by artificial intelligence. High-tech urban construction has not yet begun, but if it does, it could include facial recognition software could use public cameras to identify missing people or track criminals in crowds—capabilities that have become the norm in many Chinese cities.
This project is among those that help China lead the world in facial recognition exports, according to research by academics at Harvard and MIT published last week by the Brookings Institution, a prominent think-tank.
The report shows that Chinese companies lead the world in facial recognition exports, accounting for 201 technology-related export transactions, followed by US companies with 128 transactions. China also leads in AI overall, with 250 out of 1,636 export transactions involving some form of AI to 136 importing countries. The second largest exporter is the US, with 215 AI deals.
The report argues that these exports could allow other governments to exercise more surveillance, potentially damaging citizens’ human rights. “China’s exports to these countries may make them more autocratic, when in fact they may become more democratic,” he said. Martin Berajaan economist at MIT engaged in research whose work focuses on the relationship between new technologies such as AI, government policy, and macroeconomics.
Facial recognition technology has many practical applications, including unlocking smartphones, providing in-app authentication, and finding friends in social media posts. The MIT-Harvard researchers focused on deals involving so-called smart city technologies, 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 collected from Chinese AI companies.
In recent years, US lawmakers and presidents have expressed concern that China is gaining an edge over the US in AI technology. The report seems to offer solid evidence of one area where that change has occurred.
“It reinforces why we need to set the parameters around this kind of technology,” says Alexandra Seymoura fellow at the Center for a New American Security who studies the policy implications of AI.
There is growing bipartisan interest in the United States in restricting Chinese technology around the world. Under President Trump, the US government impose rules designed to restrict Huawei’s use of 5G technology in the US and elsewhere and Targeting Chinese AI companies with chip embargo. The Biden administration has taxed more extensive chip blockade prevented Chinese companies from accessing advanced chips or semiconductor manufacturing technology, and has put sanctions about Chinese facial recognition providers used to track Uighur Muslims.
Seymour said that further efforts to limit the export of facial recognition technology from China could take the form of sanctions against countries that import the technology. But she added that the US also needs to set an example for the rest of the world in terms of regulating the use of facial recognition.
The fact that the United States is the world’s second-largest exporter of facial recognition technology risks undermining the idea—promoted by the U.S. government—that U.S. technology naturally embodies natural values. freedom and democracy.