Two Ontario universities, York and Queen’s, have been collaborating with a major Chinese artificial-intelligence company that has been blacklisted by the U.S. government for supplying surveillance equipment used against Muslim Uyghurs.
iFlytek, a partly state-owned enterprise that specializes in voice recognition, provided $1.5-million to Toronto’s York University in 2015 to create a new iFlytek Laboratory for Neural Computing and Machine Learning and a chair at the Lassonde School of Engineering. Queen’s University, in Kingston, received $727,000 in 2019 from the Chinese AI company to develop learning models that detect and process speech.
A professor at York’s iFlytek lab has been working with scientists from China’s National University of Defence Technology, one of the country’s chief military research institutes under the direct leadership of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Washington placed the speech-recognition company on its trade blacklist in October, 2019, for supplying voice-recognition equipment to police in the Xinjiang region of China, where more than one million people have been held in detention camps and Muslim minorities face mass surveillance. The U.S. measure prevents companies from buying components from American companies without U.S. government approval.
As a result of mounting human-rights concerns, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology severed a five-year research collaboration agreement with iFlytek in 2020.
“iFlytek is heavily implicated in the surveillance system in China,” said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, senior fellow in the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa. “It’s their equipment that is used by police in Xinjiang where Uyghur voices are recorded in different modulations so that the people can listen to phone calls and know exactly who is speaking.”
York spokesman Yanni Dagonas defended the partnership with iFlytek but noted that the university’s five-year funding agreement expired in 2020.
“This gift supported and enhanced York’s existing research efforts and established the iFlytek laboratory … which supports research activities at York University in the areas of machine learning, natural language processing and machine-learning theory,” he said. “All intellectual property developed from this funding is owned by York researchers and the results of this research are in the public domain.”
Queen’s spokesman Mark Erdman said the university is “very mindful that questions are being raised within government and others concerning universities collaborating on research with entities that have links to the Chinese government.” He said the project funded is “essentially now completed.”
Mr. Erdman said Canada benefits from universities participating in the “global research ecosystem” and said academic freedom and the ability to conduct unimpeded research, within ethical and legal guidelines, is enshrined at all Canadian universities.
He said Queen’s will work closely with the federal government to develop tools that ensure researchers are able to “safely engage” in research partnerships “while preserving … academic freedom and free exchange of scientific ideas.” He said this includes federal guidelines being developed to “integrate national-security considerations into research activities.”
Both universities declined to say whether they had any concerns about iFlytek’s technology being used to repress Uyghurs. Canada’s House of Commons in February overwhelmingly endorsed a motion to recognize that China is committing genocide against its Muslim minority. The Dutch, British and Lithuanian parliaments have since adopted similar motions recognizing the treatment of Uyghurs as genocide.
Ms. McCuaig-Johnston, a former executive vice-president of the federal government’s National Research and Engineering Council, said she respects academic freedom but added Canadian universities should not accept money from Chinese entities involved in human-rights abuses or connected to Beijing’s military and security apparatus.
She also expressed concern that York’s iFlytek lab is collaborating with Chinese military scientists.
“There is a Chinese funded lab at York University and the researcher is partnering with five researchers at the National University of Defence Technology. That is a huge red flag and we should not be doing collaboration with researchers at institutions like that,” she said.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute [ASPI) has documented a number of concerns with iFlytek, which China’s Ministry of Science and Technology has named a national champion in voice-related AI.
iFlytek has a close collaborative relationship with the Chinese government and the Communist Party, and has helped the Ministry of Public Security to set up a national voice pattern database, according to Human Rights Watch. The chairman of iFlytek, Liu Qingfeng, is a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament.
The company’s technology has been used in “criminal investigations, indictments and trials through work with more than 400 courts and 200 prosecutor’s offices around China,” ASPI said, citing Chinese media as its source.
Reuters reported that a subsidiary of iFlytek was the sole supplier of 25 “voiceprint” collection systems to police in 2016 in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang. Another iFlytek subsidiary signed a “strategic co-operation framework agreement” with Xinjiang’s prison administration bureau, Reuters said.
Canadian university collaboration with China has become a focus on federal and provincial governments.
Last week, Alberta ordered its four major universities to suspend the pursuit of partnerships with people or organizations linked to Beijing or the CCP, citing concerns over national security and the risk that the research could be used to facilitate human-rights abuses.
Alberta is urging Ottawa to set strong national standards to ensure that Canadian universities and researchers are not transferring scientific data and intellectual property to China that benefits its military and security apparatus.
In March, Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced a federal working group, involving universities and granting councils, that would develop “specific risk guidelines to integrate national-security considerations into the evaluation and funding of research partnerships.” The guidelines would send a signal to Canadian university researchers, who often rely on foreign money to finance their work, but would not ban them from doing so. The working group is set to report on June 25.
Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, said discussions are taking place with Ottawa and national-security agencies for “many months on the changing geopolitical landscape, and how best to manage potential risks with the benefits of international research collaboration.”