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Chinese company blacklisted over human rights violations is listed at CES

iFlytek won a CES Innovation Award in 2019 for "Tech for a Better World." The CTA said it's reviewing the company.

CES is the world's biggest tech show.
Kent German/CNET

The US placed 28 Chinese organizations on an economic blacklist Monday, citing a range of human rights violations and technology abuses. Despite the ban, however, one company on the list may still be showcasing its technology at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show, the biggest tech trade show in the world. 

iFlytek, China's top voice recognition supplier, is among the more than 4,500 companies attending the mammoth tech show. It's also the only one that's also on the US government's "Entity List."  In January, the company boasted it has 70 percent of China's speech industry market share

The Consumer Technology Association, which organizes CES, said it was looking into iFlytek's participation in the show.

"CTA is first and foremost a US organization and we abide by US law," the CTA said in a statement. "The Commerce Department's additions to the Entity List came out only this Monday, so we are still reviewing the rules and discussing next steps."

iFlytek didn't respond to requests for comment.

The Chinese company's planned presence at the US trade show comes against a backdrop of a trade war between the US and China that's already roiled markets. It also comes as friction between China and other US organizations and companies, including the National Basketball Association, flares in the wake of Beijing's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

iFlytek provides speech recognition products, including software that translates conversations. The company has been accused of human rights violations and censorship on behalf of the Chinese government. 

The Department of Commerce, which maintains the blacklist, said on Monday that companies like iFlytek have been implicated in a Chinese surveillance campaign, using technology to spy on people and imprison millions of them. 

"The US government and Department of Commerce cannot and will not tolerate the brutal suppression of ethnic minorities within China," Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in a statement. "This action will ensure that our technologies, fostered in an environment of individual liberty and free enterprise, are not used to repress defenseless minority populations."

This isn't the first time iFlytek has faced concerns over its practices.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch found that iFlytek was working with police in China to develop a national voice biometric database. The pilot surveillance program was intended to automatically identify targeted voices in phone calls, according to the report. With more than 890 million users, iFlytek has a massive database built from the Chinese population.

iFlytek had also provided its voice recognition system to police in Xinjiang, a province in China where more than 1 million Uighur Muslims have been detained in government internment camps. The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China called it the "largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today."

The voice recognition company's artificial intelligence could recognize languages, including Uighur, according to Human Rights Watch.

Last November, iFlytek's app started censoring politically sensitive terms from its translation services, including phrases like "Tiananmen Square" and "Independence."

Despite these details being publicly known, CES welcomed iFlytek, which began attending the trade show last year. At CES 2019, iFlytek won the Innovation Award in the "Tech for a Better World" product category.  


CES awarded iFlytek in its "Tech for a Better World" category in 2019.

Alfred Ng

Following that CES award, iFlytek's vice president, Li Chuangang, told Xinhua, China's official state-run news agency, that the trade show could be a "stage" for other Chinese companies to showcase themselves.

"We made elaborate preparations for CES this year and consider CES as a great platform to showcase our innovation capacity and communicate with our international partners," he told the outlet.

iFlytek's presence at CES is another example of how US tech organizations have turned a blind eye to Chinese government surveillance, said former senior Google researcher Jack Poulson, who's the founder of Tech Inquiry, a nonprofit that works with technology whistleblowers. Poulson quit Google in September 2018 in protest of its plans for a censored, Chinese version of its search engine.

"The broader problem is just the willful negligence on protecting civil liberties and human rights by these companies," Poulson said.

Companies like the NBA and Blizzard have faced criticism for how they've dealt with Chinese pressure. On Tuesday, Blizzard banned one of its top Hearthstone players after he supported protesters in Hong Kong. The NBA also quickly apologized to China after a Houston Rockets general manager voiced support for the Hong Kong protesters. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has since said the league won't censor its members, even as he apologized to China.