How MIT Helped Develop Tech for a Chinese Company That Surveils Uyghurs

Prestigious university partnered with twice-sanctioned SenseTime to advance facial recognition technology

Uyghur men gather to pray in the far western Xinjiang province / Getty Images
August 8, 2023

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology used funding from a twice-sanctioned Chinese company to advance components of facial recognition technology, which its Chinese benefactor has reportedly used to track and imprison Uyghurs, a Washington Free Beacon review found.

China’s largest facial recognition company, SenseTime, donated an undisclosed amount of money to MIT in 2018. Twenty of the 22 research papers that donation funded, the Free Beacon found, focused on or mentioned "neural networks," which are used in facial recognition technology. Fourteen of the papers, meanwhile, covered image data or image recognition algorithms. Two researchers associated with Zhejiang University, which works on classified projects for the Chinese military, co-authored one paper with MIT researchers on "artificial neural networks."

While it’s unclear how SenseTime may have used the research it funded, the company's facial recognition technology has reportedly helped China commit genocide. SenseTime's tech is part of a "vast, secret system" the Chinese use to "track and control" Uyghurs, the New York Times reported in 2019. The Trump administration that year blacklisted SenseTime for its role in the "repression, mass arbitrary detention and high-technology surveillance" of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, preventing it from receiving technology or exporting it to the United States. Two years later, in 2021, the Biden administration banned U.S. investment in SenseTime.

SenseTime's funding of MIT research reflects China's longstanding effort to influence American higher education and target intellectual property that comes out of U.S. universities. China has, in the last decade, contributed more to U.S. universities than any other foreign nation, according to a House Foreign Affairs Committee report, and in some cases, those contributions come from individuals and groups that work with the communist nation's military. A Chinese tech billionaire whose company helped the People's Liberation Army develop "force modernization plans," for example, has given MIT $5 million and sits on advisory boards for Yale and Cornell, the Free Beacon reported last year.

Almost every paper produced with SenseTime funds deals with neural networks, which can be used to "train a system to capture a complex class of facial patterns," according to Exadel lead software engineer Serhii Pospielov. The MIT research also includes work on convolutional neural networks, which are even more effective at image recognition than other types of networks.

As MIT between 2019 and 2022 published its papers on neural networks and image recognition, SenseTime filed 47 patent applications with the World International Patent Organization for facial and image recognition tech using neural networks.

MIT and SenseTime announced their "Alliance on Artificial Intelligence" in 2018, a partnership that came with an undisclosed financial gift from SenseTime. MIT told the Free Beacon it used the money for "unrestricted MIT research." MIT reconsidered its relationship with the Chinese company after the Trump administration's 2019 sanctions, according to media reports, but did not halt its SenseTime-funded research until the company faced fresh sanctions two years later.

After the Biden administration further sanctioned SenseTime in 2021, blocking investment in the company, MIT still decided "not to return" the gift, the school spokesperson said. Instead, the university "put on hold additional uses of the funding not already allocated, including pausing any new calls for research proposals that might be funded by the gift and not moving forward with any fellowships," an MIT spokesperson told the Free Beacon.

MIT did not respond to additional requests for comment regarding SenseTime’s donation amount and the content of its research.

SenseTime was not the only controversial Chinese entity MIT partnered with to conduct its research. Two researchers associated with China's Zhejiang University co-authored one of the SenseTime-funded papers. Zhejiang supports three Chinese military research labs, and the U.S. government has flagged the school for scientific and economic espionage. The FBI arrested a Chinese researcher in 2013 for stealing U.S. cancer research to pass along to Zhejiang University.

Both the Biden and Trump administrations declared that China's treatment of the Uyghurs is a genocide. Up to two million Uyghur Muslims are being held in Xinjiang, a territory in northwest China that is home to the communist nation's textile industry and also produces large amounts of polysilicon, a raw material used in solar panels. Uyghurs imprisoned in Xinjiang detention camps are subject to political reeducation, slave labor, and forced sterilization.

SenseTime has decried the sanctions, saying in 2021 that the accusations against it are "unfounded and reflect a fundamental misperception of our company."

"We regret to have been caught in the middle of geopolitical tension," the company's statement read.