Risky partner: Top U.S. universities took funds from Chinese firm tied to Xinjiang security

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at least one other university have research partnerships with a Chinese artificial intelligence company that has business ties with police in China’s Xinjiang region, where a sweeping crackdown on Uighurs has drawn international condemnation.

A 2016 government procurement announcement named a subsidiary of iFlytek as the sole supplier of 25 “voiceprint” collection systems to police in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang. Another iFlytek subsidiary signed a “strategic cooperation framework agreement” with Xinjiang’s prison administration bureau, according to a May 2017 company blog post on social media platform WeChat.

Authorities can use voiceprint technology, which captures the unique signatures of a person’s voice, to help track and identify people, human rights activists say.

Reuters found no evidence that any of the universities were directly involved in creating technology for iFlytek, or that their work was intended for use in Xinjiang, where Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, are kept under tight surveillance, including in “reeducation camps.”

Still, some U.S. universities are taking a closer look at their collaborations with Chinese technology companies in light of the U.S.-China trade conflict, Washington’s scrutiny of telecommunications equipment maker Huawei and reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

MIT, for instance, announced in April that it would sever ties with Huawei and rival ZTE, which the U.S. government says are a security risk. Other institutions, including the University of California, Berkeley, have also halted funding from Huawei for all research partnerships.

iFlytek declined to comment on its business with China’s security agencies in Xinjiang and elsewhere in the country. In a statement sent via WeChat, a representative told Reuters that “some of the cooperation and content relates to security matters.”

The company added that the research at MIT is “based on the common understanding of using artificial intelligence to build a beautiful world” and that iFlytek was a “socially responsible company.”

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