Eyes Wide Open: Ethical Risks In Research Collaboration With China

by Glenn Tiffert, Jeffrey Stoff
Wednesday, December 15, 2021

This report presents a case study of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Automation (CASIA), a global leader in education and research on artificial intelligence, biometrics, and neuroscience. CASIA exemplifies a class of entities—common to authoritarian nations—that simultaneously pursue beneficial and reprehensible lines of research. While its subdivisions and commercial affiliates undertake projects that advance human welfare and the frontiers of knowledge in areas such as medicine, they also partner with public security organs on mass surveillance technologies associated with human rights violations, particularly in the Xinjiang region.

US research institutions and companies collaborate extensively with CASIA. Yet the ethical and integrity risks of those collaborations receive insufficient scrutiny and may compromise democratic values as well as sanctions, export controls, and other policy measures adopted by the US government in response to repression by authoritarian regimes. The US research enterprise must develop nuanced knowledge and procedures for grappling with the dilemmas that collaboration with Janus-faced entities such as CASIA entails.

The report makes the following recommendations:

  • Research institutions and governments should revise existing concepts of research integrity to ensure consistency with democratic values, and define a common standard or set of conditions for ethical reviews of research that considers legal and political context and ethical and human rights risks. These reviews must include, for example, protocols for affirmatively validating the provenance of personally identifiable information and biometric and genetic datasets, and their compliance with standards of ethics and informed consent; planning for scenarios such as the diversion of research and data to organs of China’s party-state; and concrete deliberation over the potential for lines of research that seem comparatively benign in a democratic polity to serve abhorrent ends in an authoritarian one.
  • Federal agencies should deny or remove funding for research projects that involve collaboration with entities, based in authoritarian nations, that support mass surveillance and human rights abuses.
  • The US Department of Commerce should place CASIA and the affiliated businesses discussed in this report on the Entity List for export controls.
  • Academic and private sector organizations should review their partnerships with CASIA and its affiliates for risks to human rights, and to research ethics and integrity.
  • Civil society institutions should work together to develop knowledge and promote robust due diligence and information sharing on suspect entities based in authoritarian nations in order to uphold ethical standards and protect human rights.

Eyes Wide Open: Ethical Ris... by Hoover Institution

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About The Authors

Glenn Tiffert is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a historian of modern China. He coleads the Hoover project on China’s Global Sharp Power and works closely with government and civil society partners to document and build resilience against authoritarian interference with democratic institutions. He coauthored and edited the Hoover report Global Engagement: Rethinking Risk in the Research Enterprise (2020).

Jeff Stoff is the founder of Redcliff Enterprises, a start-up that seeks to build public-private partnerships dedicated to protecting research and intellectual capital. Stoff spent eighteen years in the US government as a senior analyst focused on critical technology protection issues. He has advised the White House, departments of Defense and State, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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