U.S. Restricts AI Exports For Satellite Imagery Analysis

On January 6, the Department of Commerce’s rule, restricting American companies that create Artificial Intelligence (AI) software for satellite image analysis from exporting their products to China and other countries, takes effect. The new rule affects emerging technology that could be advantageous to the United States military or intelligence community.

The new restrictions would require a special license to sell software outside of the United States if it can “automatically scan aerial images to identify objects of interest, such as vehicles or houses.” This portion of the tech industry uses “algorithms to analyze satellite images of crops, trade patterns and other changes affecting the economy or environment.” The new rule will impact the use of artificial intelligence to detect and identify objects from planes, drones, and satellites, both for government or civilian purposes. The restriction applies to all countries except Canada, however, a goal of the restriction is to prevent China from obtaining this technology for its AI surveillance.

This is a temporary restriction until the public weighs in before March. Due to imminent national security concerns, the Commerce Department wanted the restriction effective immediately. The export restriction is a result of a 2018 law which “updated national security-related export controls to protect ‘emerging and foundational’ technology that could end up in the hands of foreign governments.” The  law “tasked [the Commerce Department] with writing rules to boost oversight of exports of sensitive technology to adversaries like China, for economic and security reasons.” Another aspect of the law prohibited the US government from purchasing equipment from Huawei.

The new rule came a few months after the US government prohibited American companies from trading with Chinese AI surveillance companies and camera manufacturers. The previous barring was to prevent US companies from supplying this technology for surveying the Uighur population over human rights concerns

China spends a significant amount of money on surveillance technology and AI, which has led to major growth in the industry in China. China does not have the same restrictions and regulations as other countries, which is a major complaint and concern for the US government. However, “America’s global technology players inadvertently feed into that industry with the complex sets of relationships between U.S. commercial players and China has prompted serious concerns from U.S. lawmakers.” This has left US lawmakers uneasy and pushing to regulate China and American companies in relation to China.