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Technology CES may be helping Chinese surveillance companies clean up image, experts warn

15:15  05 november  2019
15:15  05 november  2019 Source:   cnet.com

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CES is often considered the Super Bowl of tech, with over 4,000 companies flocking to Las Vegas every January to show off innovations like robot assistants and talking toilets. But human rights and privacy advocates say they're worried that the world's largest consumer tech trade show in the world is now being used to give credibility to two Chinese surveillance companies flagged for human rights violations.

Experts warn that CES is helping normalize Chinese surveillance companies by giving them a platform at the largest tech trade show in the world. CES© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. Experts warn that CES is helping normalize Chinese surveillance companies by giving them a platform at the largest tech trade show in the world. CES

The first, iFLYTEK, is China's top voice recognition company and an artificial intelligence giant. The second is Hikvision, the largest surveillance camera supplier in the world, whose US arm EZVIZ sells smart home products. Earlier this month, the US government put the companies -- out of eight in total -- on an entity list, essentially blacklisting them from doing business with US companies due to rights violations and concerns over surveillance overreach.

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CES, the largest tech trade show in the world, removed two Chinese surveillance companies from its attendees list on Thursday.© Jason Hiner/CBS Interactive

CES, the largest tech trade show in the world, removed two Chinese surveillance companies from its attendees list on Thursday.

After a month of being placed on the Commerce Department entity list, iFLYTEK and EZVIZ are still listed to attend CES 2020, put on by the US trade group, the Consumer Technology Association.

Their presence at the show, which gives them a global platform and an opportunity to present themselves as friendly, tech-savvy organizations, could lend them an air of legitimacy right after the US government has sanctioned them for their actions.

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"These kinds of relations help to normalize companies that have a role in contributing to human rights abuses in China," Human Rights Watch senior researcher Maya Wang said. "It desensitizes us from asking more questions and trying to put in place mechanisms to protect human rights before it's too late."

Hikvision and EZVIZ didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for the Consumer Technology Association said the group was reviewing iFLYTEK, which CNET previously reported was still on the list to attend next year's show. The group didn't respond to requests for comment about EZVIZ -- a subsidiary of Hikvision. And the trade organization said on Friday it didn't have any updates on its review process.

But others are asking the organization to take action.

"I'd urge CES to rethink this decision. Participants in China's Xinjiang concentration camps should not get to showcase their products at America's premier consumer electronics show," Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said in a statement.

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EZVIZ's ties to Hikvision

EZVIZ, created in 2013, is described as a smart home security company, and listed on CES's directory as a business based in California. It provides features like facial recognition to identify who is at your door and offers gadgets like video doorbells that can be integrated with voice assistants including Amazon's Alexa.

The company also offers tech that can create databases of your friends and family members so its cameras can recognize who's at your doorstep. In 2016, EZVIZ said it had more than 10 million users.

a close up of a bottle on a table: An EZVIZ security camera shown off at CES 2018. Tyler Lizenby/CNET© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. An EZVIZ security camera shown off at CES 2018. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

"EZVIZ creates a safe, convenient and smart life for users through its intelligent devices, cloud-based platform and AI technology," the company says on its website.

EZVIZ is open about its ties to its parent company, but it doesn't mention Hikvision's history of human rights violations in China on its website.

The Commerce Department added Hikvision, alongside iFLYTEK, to its economic blacklist on Oct. 7, citing evidence that they were helping oppress Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

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"Specifically, these entities 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," the Commerce Department said in a statement.

Hikvision has received more than $270 million in contracts to provide thousands of security cameras in China, many of which are placed in mosques and detention camps holding more than 1 million Uighur Muslims, according to AFP News.

Hikvision's reputation has been well-known to the UK government as well. In March, members of Parliament called out the company for its surveillance contracts in Xinjiang and Tibet, calling it an abuse of human rights. The lawmakers criticized Hikvision for its surveillance and facial recognition abilities, writing that "the sophistication of this technology and its sinister use is a serious cause for concern."

iFLYTEK was found to be working with police in China to build a voice recognition database, which officers could use to identify targeted voice in phone calls, according to the Human Rights Watch organization.

CES award winners

a person standing in front of a television playing a video game: Hikvision cameras in a mall in China. The surveillance camera provider is the parent company of EZVIZ. FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. Hikvision cameras in a mall in China. The surveillance camera provider is the parent company of EZVIZ. FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images

Given Hikvision and iFLYTEK's public history of human rights abuses, CES' decisions to give the companies a platform to showcase their technology and honor them with Innovation Awards is concerning, say human rights advocates.

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Two years after the Human Rights Watch report was released, iFLYTEK won an award at CES in the "Tech for a Better World" category.

EZVIZ, Hikvision's subsidiary, won an Innovation Award in 2018 for a smart door viewer that allows users to create a database of trusted visitors.

When asked about the concerns around iFLYTEK on Oct. 9, CTA said it needed time to take action as the US government's entity list had been released two days prior. Critics counter that iFLYTEK and Hikvision's human rights abuses had been known for years.

"Giving an award for a company that has been documented to be involved in a human rights violations in a severely repressed part of China seems rather inappropriate and I would hope that the organizers evaluate the decision," Wang said.

The CTA didn't comment on the status of iFLYTEK and EZVIZ's awards, but the two companies have been using the organizations endorsements to help promote their businesses.

"We're honored to be recognized by an organization like CTA," Albert Lin, general manager of EZVIZ, said in a statement following the award in 2018. "EZVIZ is committed to providing intuitive smart home products and applications that enable customers to see, capture, share and protect what's valuable to them."

iFLYTEK told a Chinese-run news agency in January 2019 that it considers CES "a great platform to showcase our innovation capacity."

These companies should not be allowed to showcase their technology and products at such a major tech show and clean up their public image, said Albert Fox Cahn, director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

"It's deeply disturbing to see the firms that power ethnic cleansing given this sort of public platform," said Cahn, whose nonprofit is devoted to stopping discriminatory surveillance. "When a company sells the tech to perpetuate one of the gravest human rights abuses of the last 50 years, they should lose any place in our consumer economy."

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