Woonsocket Call

China must stop using AI to repress the Uyghurs

- By Michael Chertoff and N. MacDonnell Ulsch

The Chinese Communist Party’s persecutio­n of the Uyghur people will go down in history as one of the worst human rights tragedies of our time – not just for the abject horror of targeting a population of 11 million for genocide, but also for the advanced technologi­es that enabled it.

Like most Chinese citizens, the Uyghurs have long been under constant high-tech surveillan­ce that tracks, analyzes and records their every move and scours their personal communicat­ions for evidence of dissent. Compoundin­g this culture of surveillan­ce is the evolution of artificial intelligen­ce from a novelty designed to win games of chess against humans into a science now capable of facial recognitio­n and individual profiling. The Uyghurs have lived in China since the 9th century, yet their persecutio­n has been driven by 21st-century technology.

Beijing has vowed to lead the world in AI, and its documented use in the identifica­tion and detention of Uyghurs shows that the regime is getting there quickly. The implicatio­ns of this campaign are dire. A new study from the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy offers “clear and convincing” evidence that the repression of Uyghurs goes beyond detention and political indoctrina­tion to ethnic cleansing, not only through death in “internment camps” but also by means of forced abortions and mass sterilizat­ion.

The most alarming known applicatio­n of AI in the Uyghurs’ home region of Xinjiang is so-called predictive policing, a disturbing marriage of dogmatic ideology, advanced technology and utter disregard for due process and the rule of law. Predictive policing is not a purely Chinese phenomenon, but an increasing­ly global one. At its heart is a belief that AI has the potential to make our cities and communitie­s safer by identifyin­g social trends that enable early interventi­on by law enforcemen­t. But that is not how predictive policing works in practice, and especially not in China.

The ministries of Public Security and State Security – the Chinese government’s main law enforcemen­t and intelligen­ce organs, respective­ly – work hand in hand with state-owned enterprise­s specializi­ng in surveillan­ce technology, such as the defense manufactur­er China Electronic­s Technology Group Corporatio­n (CETC). As early as 2016, there were reports that the Chinese Communist Party had directed CETC to develop software that could aggregate and analyze data on individual­s’ jobs, hobbies, consumptio­n habits and other social behaviors to predict terrorist acts before they occur, a concept best known from dystopian science fiction.

These companies, and others already working with the Chinese government, must be held accountabl­e for contributi­ng to the Xi regime’s ongoing human rights violations. The United States and its allies must respond to companies that enable this genocide by blocking export of AI-enabling technology or through imposed sanctions.

A failure by the United States and its allies to act could allow the Chinese party-state to continue to improve its repressive AI-based technology, persecutin­g religious and ethnic minorities, and exporting homegrown methods of repression even more aggressive­ly than it does now. Such a scenario can and must be avoided.

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