As Western academic institutions re-evaluate their ties with China in the face of the mass detention of around one million Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, one leading U.S. scientist is facing criticism for giving a keynote speech at the country’s largest conference for biometrics.

As revealed by Coda Story last month, Anil K. Jain, the head of Michigan State University’s Biometrics Research Group, traveled to Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi in August 2018 and gave a speech about facial recognition at the Chinese Conference on Biometrics Recognition (CCBR). Jain was also on the CCBR’s advisory board and was pictured receiving an honorary certificate. 

Jain is regarded as one of the world’s most influential computer scientists and a pioneer in areas of pattern recognition and biometric recognition systems. He has won countless awards and honors and is often quoted on U.S. facial recognition issues in publications like Wired and Slate. In the same month as Jain presented a paper titled “From the Edge of Biometrics: What’s Next?” at the CCBR conference in Urumqi, a United Nations human rights panel described Xinjiang as resembling a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.” 

Biometrics played a prominent role in the government-led “anti-terror” crackdown which saw hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs detained in re-education camps. Facial recognition, DNA collection, iris scans, and other methods of surveillance became ubiquitous. 

“I would certainly turn down such an invitation,” said Toby Walsh, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “The Chinese government is very closely aligned with the tech sector and has very troubling uses of face recognition in particular and surveillance in general. It’s really using behaviors that challenge human rights, especially those of ethnic minorities. I wouldn’t need to be seen facilitating or supporting that.”

“By the time Professor Jain attended the conference in 2018 nearly all major news outlets had reported on the camp system and the forcible collection of biometric data across the region,” said Darren Byler, a lecturer at the University of Washington, and an expert on Xinjiang. “As a leading expert on technology and racial bias, he should have known how the research produced by his colleagues at the conference was being used.”

Byler added that he found Jain’s attendance at the CCBR “even more appalling” given that the conference was held at and sponsored by Xinjiang University, whose ethnically Uyghur president Tashpolat Tiyip, a respected geographer, was arrested in 2017 as part of “a clear demonstration of the government’s broad-scale attack on Uyghur intellectual life,” according to PEN America. A few weeks after the CCBR, Tiyip was sentenced to death; Amnesty International announced this week that he faces imminent execution.

Whether Jain was aware of this context is difficult to confirm. Michigan State University’s media relations department directed requests for comments to Jain, who did not answer questions sent by email or reply by phone.

Jain has strong ties to China’s biometrics community. At the CCBR in Urumqi, he was pictured with two former students, Jianjiang Feng and Qijun Zhao, who both now teach at Chinese universities and specialize in facial recognition and other intelligent video applications. 

Another attendee, Hu Han, also worked with Jain at MSU, where he specialized in computer vision applications for “biometrics, forensics, law enforcement, and security systems”. Hu is now employed at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a government research institute. 

During the same trip, Jain also traveled to Sichuan to meet a former colleague from the 1980s who has now started his own surveillance firm, Wisesoft, which uses Jain’s research to develop 3D face recognition systems.

The involvement of academic institutions with tech firms linked with the Chinese government’s crackdown in Xinjiang has come under increased scrutiny. Imperial College London recently hosted an open facial recognition competition where one of the sponsors was a Chinese AI startup called DeepGlint, which services several security projects in Xinjiang. When asked for comment, the competition’s organizer said he was not aware of DeepGlint’s role in tracking Uyghurs. Imperial College organizers subsequently removed DeepGlint’s sponsorship.

David Tobin, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow who studies security in China, said researchers in technical fields often ignore the real-world applications of their research. “It is imperative that natural scientists be trained in social sciences to understand these effects and the world they make things for and in ethics to be able to ask these questions when they construct, conduct, and disseminate their research,” he said. “However, such training and knowledge is sadly lacking in these fields and public debates rely on false dichotomies between natural and social worlds and between facts and values.”

Jain is not alone in facing criticism – a university in Australia is investigating one of its professors for co-writing several studies seeking to improve methods to distinguish Uyghurs’ faces from others. A senior Microsoft AI researcher, Gang Hua, who has since left the company, and Qiang Ji, a computer science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, also attended the CCBR in Xinjiang and gave a speech.

Jain’s attendance at CCBR has also prompted criticism by Uyghur activists. “Michigan State and all universities need to urgently review their faculty’s research activities in China for compliance with basic academic ethics,” said Louisa Greve, external affairs director for the DC-based Uyghur Human Rights Project. “At a minimum, if they are conducting research or otherwise cooperating with Chinese institutions that collect data without consent, they should be sanctioned”.

Whether the controversy over the Xinjiang conference will have any long-term impact is unclear. Jain is listed on the organizing committee for the next CCBR, which will not be held in Xinjiang but in the interior city of Zhuzhou next month. The CCBR 2018 website is no longer active.