Tech giant Microsoft has reportedly been working on artificial intelligence research with a Chinese military-run university, recent reports claim that the research could be used for both surveillance and censorship.
Tech giant Microsoft has been working with a Chinese military-operated university on research relating to A.I. which could be used for surveillance and censorship practices, according to the Financial Times. Between March and November, three scientific studies were published which were co-written by academics from the Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing. Other researchers involved in the studies had close affiliations to China’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT).
Senior fellow at the New America think tank and China tech expert Samm Sacks commented on the possible issues of collaboration between Microsoft and the Chinese military-run university, stating that the recently published papers raised “red flags because of the nature of the technology, the author affiliations, combined with what we know about how this technology is being deployed in China right now.” Sacks added: “The [Chinese] government is using these technologies to build surveillance systems and to detain minorities [in Xinjiang].”
The director of cyberspace policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, Adam Segal, commented on the collaboration saying: “US-China academic partnerships are increasingly under the microscope as the FBI focuses on the threat of espionage from students and scientists, and the Defense Department [focuses] on the possibility that frontier technologies might eventually make their way to the PLA [the Chinese military].”
MIT cut ties with Chinese telecoms group Huawei recently and began an “elevated risk” review process for its Chinese projects, showing that there is increased scrutiny around Chinese tech and surveillance issues.
Worryingly, some of the recent projects Microsoft researchers worked on with the NUDT have direct surveillance applications. One of the papers that was co-authored by Microsoft and NUDT researchers investigated a new A.I. method of recreating detailed environmental maps through the analysis of human faces which experts believe could have direct applications for surveillance.
Pedro Domingos, a professor of A.I. at the University of Washington, commented on such applications stating: “Let’s suppose I’m an intelligence agency and I have pictures of people of interest; I can use the system to tell something about the place they’re in that they didn’t realize they were giving away.”
Other papers that Microsoft researchers worked on with NUDT researchers related to machine learning, an area of technology that could be used for censorship according to experts. Chinese military technology expert and fellow at the think-tank the Center for a New American Security, Elsa Kania, commented on this aspect, stating: “Machine reading comprehension may not seem directly concerning but it could be used for censorship, which is an interest of the Chinese government. They see natural language processing as a way to enable censorship at scale.”
Microsoft commented on the issue stating that its “researchers, who are often academics, conduct fundamental research with leading scholars and experts from around the world to advance our understanding of technology.” The company added: “In each case, the research is guided by our principles, fully complies with US and local laws, and . . . is published to ensure transparency so that everyone can benefit from our work.”