Liberty Vittert: Biden should halt sales to China of US tech used to persecute and enslave Uighur Muslims

Technological identification facilitated by the US is a dangerous tool that tyrannical governments can use against their own people

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Without garnering much public attention in the U.S., the Chinese Communist government is currently enslaving about 1 million Uighurs — members of a Muslim ethnic group based in northwest China — in “reeducation centers” that have been described as high-tech concentration camps.

Imprisoned Uighurs are indoctrinated with Communist propaganda and are forced to perform slave labor in Chinese factories. Millions more Uighurs in the Xinjiang region are subject to government surveillance and restrictions in what amounts to a Chinese police state.

Few Americans are aware that the unjustified imprisonment and persecution of the Uighurs is made possible in part by surveillance technologies exported by American corporations to China. The sales of these types of tools to authoritarian regimes should have been prohibited long ago. 

HOW US CAN HELP CHINA'S UIGHURS, WHO SUFFER DISAPPEARANCES, FORCED ABORTIONS, OTHER ATROCITIES

During the presidential election campaign, President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign labeled the oppression of the Uighurs as “genocide.” Biden needs to follow through on that view and turn it into action after he becomes president Jan. 20 by banning sales of dangerous American tech to the oppressive Chinese regime.

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Databases created in the U.S. have been shared with companies in China that are linked to the ethnic cleansing of the Uighur Muslims. Facial recognition systems are being used in China to identify individuals as Uighur or non-Uighur. China has deported as many as 3 million of those identified Uighurs to detention camps, where torture is commonplace. 

Multilevel connections and partnerships between U.S. companies, investors and universities are interwoven into the multitude of Chinese companies supplying the technology to carry out police-state surveillance and ethnic cleansing

Imagine walking down the street gazing at the Christmas lights twinkling away, but you also see a harsh-colored red light shining down on you emanating from a camera with artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition.

The camera photographs your face and after you’ve ambled a little further down the street a van pulls up, men in uniform throw you in the van and the next time you see light is as you are processed in a detention center by your own government simply for being a certain ethnicity. You have no idea what has happened to your family. All they know is that you have disappeared.

History is littered with stories of dissidents vanishing. Technological identification facilitated by free and democratic countries like the United States is brand new and a dangerous tool that tyrannical governments can use against their own people.

As the European Union tightens restrictions on sales by member nations of facial recognition and biometric systems to other governments, the U.S. has failed to take an obvious step: ban the sale of artificial intelligence and facial-recognition systems to countries that are dictatorships with totalitarian governments. Biden should impose this ban after he becomes president.

The U.S. government’s Export Administration Regulations and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations restrict the import and export of items and technology sold outside of the United States involving national security.

The U.S. Commerce Department has banned Chinese facial recognition and biometric companies from buying American products because the department says the Chinese firms “ have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups.”

However, the U.S. hasn’t carried out a comprehensive review of emerging American technologies like mass surveillance systems, advanced biometric analysis systems and advanced facial recognition software since 2008.

Think of what has happened since 2008 to technology. We have 10 times the number of smartphones. Social media are far more widespread, with the number of Facebook monthly active users growing from 100 million 12 years ago to 2.74 billion today. Many other social media platforms that were in their infancy with far fewer users have also become far more widespread, and some didn’t even exist in 2008.

Simple commonsense dictates that a comprehensive review of artificial intelligence technology that is shaping the world is long overdue.

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The high-definition cameras used by China against the Uighurs generally do not require a U.S. export license because they didn’t exist 12 years ago. This is just one of a multitude of items that have never been added to the “comprehensive list” of dangerous tech products that shouldn’t be sold to certain governments. 

Unfortunately, the U.S. government is allowing advanced technology to have a life of its own, with these tools of tyranny being sold to the highest international bidder to be used for who knows what purpose. 

I believe we are at the precipice of a very scary turning point in U.S. history. We need to understand the technology that we are creating in order to protect citizens of the United States and the rest of the world. 

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It is time for the U.S. government to step up to the plate and end the abhorrent practice of helping foreign governments commit horrific human rights abuses. Moreover, we need to have a much wider discussion about the issues surrounding the uses of these technologies right here at home, and the risk of authoritarian regimes having these technologies to use against U.S. interests in the future. 

Joe Biden will have a lot on his plate when he becomes president and it’s understandable and appropriate that he is focused on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. But the Biden administration should also act to prevent China and other dictatorships from using U.S. technology to violate human rights and oppress their own people.  

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