At the beginning of last year, bangladesh government began weighing an offer from an unnamed Chinese company build a smart city in the Bay of Bengal with AI-enhanced infrastructure. Construction on the high-tech metropolis has yet to begin, but if it goes ahead, it could include facial recognition software that can use public cameras to identify missing persons or track down criminals in a crowd — capabilities already standard in many Chinese cities.
This project is among those that have made China the world leader in facial recognition exports. studying scientists from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published last week by the Brookings Institution, a well-known think tank.
The report says 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 the field in artificial intelligence overall, with 250 out of 1,636 export transactions involving some form of artificial intelligence in 136 importing countries. The second largest exporter was the US with 215 AI deals.
The report argues that these exports could allow other governments to carry out more active surveillance, which could harm the human rights of citizens. “The fact that China exports goods to these countries may make them more authoritarian, when in fact they could become more democratic,” he says. Martin Berajaan economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who participated in the study, whose work focuses on the relationship between emerging technologies such as AI, public policy and macroeconomics.
Facial recognition technology has many practical uses, including unlocking smartphones, providing authentication to apps, and finding friends in social media messages. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard have focused on deals related to so-called smart city technology, where facial recognition is often used to improve video surveillance. The study used information on global surveillance projects from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and data 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 strong evidence for one area where this shift has already taken place.
“This confirms why we need to set parameters for this type of technology,” says Alexandra SeymourAssociate Fellow at the Center for a New American Security who studies the political implications of AI.
In the US, there is growing bipartisan interest in limiting Chinese technology worldwide. Under President Trump, the US government has introduced regulations aimed at limiting the use of Huawei 5G technology in the US and elsewhere and has targeted Chinese AI firms with a chip embargo. The Biden administration has implemented a broader chip blockade that prevents Chinese companies from gaining access to advanced chips or semiconductor manufacturing technologies. imposed sanctions about Chinese facial recognition providers used to surveil Uyghur Muslims.
Seymour said further efforts to restrict the export of facial recognition technology from China could take the form of sanctions against countries that import the technology. But she adds that the US should also set an example for the rest of the world in terms of regulating the use of facial recognition.
The fact that the US is the world’s second largest exporter of facial recognition technology could undermine the US government’s idea that US technology naturally embodies the values of freedom and democracy.