China a major driver of AI surveillance worldwide: report

By Chris Udemans
2 min read
Surveillance cameras watch closely as visitors walk around the Bund in Shanghai, China on April 4, 2019. (Image Credit: TechNode/Eugene Tang)
Surveillance cameras on the Bund in Shanghai, China on April 4, 2019. (Image credit: TechNode/Eugene Tang)

China has become one of the main exporters of artificial intelligence-driven surveillance technologies around the world, pushing adoption through its controversial Belt and Road Initiative, according to new research.

Why it matters: China spends more on domestic stability than it does on its military, and artificial intelligence (AI) has become a central pillar of this push.

  • The country employs facial recognition and smart city technologies from some of its biggest tech companies, including Sensetime, Yitu, Alibaba, and Huawei.
  • The State Council, China’s cabinet, in 2017 laid out plans to become a worldwide leader in AI by 2030.
  • Companies that thrived as a result of a surveillance push in China are now looking abroad for new business opportunities.

“China is a major supplier of AI surveillance. Technology linked to Chinese companies are found in at least 63 countries worldwide… There is also considerable overlap between China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and AI surveillance—36 out of 86 BRI countries also contain significant AI surveillance technology.”

–Steven Feldstein at the Carnegie Endowment for Global Peace (CEGP)

Details: China is home to three out of seven of the world’s biggest companies that provide AI surveillance technology, according to CEGB.

  • Huawei is by far the largest, supplying its technology to 50 countries, followed by Chinese surveillance camera manufacturer Hikvision. Other companies include ZTE and Dahua Technology.
  • Other suppliers come from the US and Japan.
  • A growing number of countries around the world are showing interest in these sorts of technologies, which include smart city platforms, facial recognition systems, and smart policing solutions.
  • Product pitches to prospective buyers are often accompanied by soft loans to encourage governments to make purchases, CEGB said, with these tactics being most prevalent in the developing world.
  • Developing nations obtain financing from the Chinese government, which requires contracting Chinese firms, the organization said, raising questions about the extent to which the government is financing purchases of these technologies.

Context: Some of the world’s biggest AI startups are based in China, and they are now looking to capital markets outside of the mainland to raise money for continued expansion.

  • Megvii, whose facial recognition solutions are used by police around China, submitted documents for a Hong Kong listing last month.
  • Rival AI firm Sensetime said earlier this month that its value has surpassed $7.5 billion.