Trade War: US blacklists China’s top AI startups, 25 others over human rights violations

THE Trump administration has banned three of the world’s most valuable private facial recognition startups from doing business in the United States, prohibiting them from purchasing US products or maintaining relationships with American entities.

On Monday, the Department of Commerce announced that 28 Chinese companies and government entities had been added to a blacklist for their roles in human rights violations in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwest China that’s home to millions of Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority.

Among ventures banned are the Chinese startups SenseTime, Megvii, and Yitu, which, combined, have raised billions of dollars to develop commercial facial recognition technology, including security camera manufacturers Hikvision and Dahua Technology whom the US claims are  among “entities reasonably believed to be involved, or to pose a significant risk of being or becoming involved, in activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”

SenseTime, Megvii, and Yitu, have flourished amid the Chinese government’s push for investments into artificial intelligence, have faced mounting criticism over perceived misuse of their technology by government agencies, particularly in Xinjiang, where it is believed to have played a role in the arrest and detention of more than a million Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities.

Although SenseTime and Megvii have denied working with state entities in the region, researchers and academics have uncovered troubling connections between their facial recognition tech and the surveillance and imprisonment of minorities in China.

“Specifically, these entities have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in [Xinjiang],” the directive read.

In the past, Megvii has acknowledged that around 1 per cent of its total revenue was derived from projects in Xinjiang in 2018, though “no revenue was generated” from the region in the first six months of 2019. The company booked sales of about $200 million in 2018, according to financial documents.

According to PitchBook, a private company database, SenseTime is valued at more than $7.5 billion and Megvii at $4 billion, based on their latest rounds of private funding. Both companies are also moving toward initial public offerings.

    Earlier this year, the US blacklisted Huawei over national security concerns, dealing a major blow to the Chinese telecom and mobile device giant’s international business prospects. Previously, in June, the Trump administration added five more Chinese companies to the list and was said to be weighing further additions amid an increasingly hostile trade war.

    The Chinese government has come under scrutiny for its treatment of Uighurs and other ethnic minority groups.

    US leaders, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have accused it of human rights violations within its camps, ranging from involuntary imprisonment to torture.

    However, the Chinese government has dismissed these criticisms, insisting the camps are centres for re-education or vocational training.


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