U.S. Companies Fuel Surveillance in China

U.S. Companies Fuel Surveillance in China

At Foreign Policy this week, Securing Democracy’s Lindsay Gorman and Matt Schrader described how American tech firms and institutions “are lending expertise, reputational credence, and even technology to Chinese surveillance companies, wittingly or otherwise,” following the exposure of massive quantities of surveillance data by a firm, SenseNets, which claims to have a partnership with Microsoft. (Microsoft denies that any such partnership exists.)

[… T]he party is leveraging China’s vibrant tech ecosystem, inviting Chinese companies to participate through conventional government-procurement tools. Companies built the re-education camps. Companies supply the software that watches Uighurs online and the cameras that surveil their physical movements. While based in China, many are deeply embedded in the international tech community, in ways that raise serious questions about the misuse of critical new technologies. Foreign firms, eager to access Chinese funding and data, have rushed into partnerships without heed to the ways the technologies they empower are being used in Xinjiang and elsewhere.

In February 2018, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced a wide-ranging research partnership with Chinese artificial-intelligence giant and global facial-recognition leader SenseTime. SenseTime then held a 49 percent stake in SenseNets, with robust cross-pollination of technical personnel. SenseNets’ parent company Netposa (also Chinese) has offices in Silicon Valley and Boston, received a strategic investment from Intel Capital in 2010, and has invested in U.S. robotics start-ups: Bito—led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University—and Exyn, a drone software company competing in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) artificial-intelligence challenge. This extensive enmeshing raises both moral and dual-use national-security questions. Dual-use technology is tech that can be put to both civilian and military uses and as such is subject to tighter controls. Nuclear power and GPS are classic examples, but new technologies such as facial recognition, augmented reality and virtual reality, 5G, and quantum computing are beginning to raise concerns about their dual applicability.

[…] Equally concerning is that the details of technical and research collaborations with Chinese companies can be opaque to international partners, concealing ethically objectionable activities. When Yale University geneticist Kenneth Kidd shared DNA samples with a scientific colleague from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Institute on Forensic Science, he had no idea they would be used to refine genetic surveillance techniques in Xinjiang. Massachusetts-based company Thermo Fisher is also implicated: Until it was reported last month, the company sold DNA sequencers directly to authorities in Xinjiang for genetic mapping. Western companies and institutions must be far more vigilant in scrutinizing how Chinese partners are using their products, especially emerging technologies. [Source]

On Twitter, Charles Rollett highlighted more examples from his own reporting:

Perhaps the most prominent recent case of a Western firm’s willingness to participate in China’s surveillance machinery is Google’s Project Dragonfly, a planned search engine for the Chinese market which would have tracked its users as well as censoring their search results. The project was reportedly abandoned in December after a sharp internal and external backlash, but watchful employees have reported possible signs of continued work. Meanwhile, the company came under fire last week for its existing research activities within China. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told the Armed Services Committee last week that while Google had withdrawn from collaborations with the U.S. armed forces, it continued to “support” China’s due to the “fusion of commercial business with [the] military”. This spurred a Twitter rebuke from the U.S. Commander in Chief:

NBC News’ Max Burman reported the company’s response:

“We are not working with the Chinese military. We are working with the U.S. government, including the Department of Defense, in many areas including cybersecurity, recruiting and healthcare,” a spokesperson said.

Trump’s criticism came just days after Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made similar comments in testimony before Congress.

“The work that Google is doing in China is indirectly benefiting the Chinese military,” Dunford said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

“We watch with great concern when industry partners work in China knowing that there is that indirect benefit,” he said. “Frankly, ‘indirect’ may be not a full characterization of the way it really is, it is more of a direct benefit to the Chinese military.” [Source]

Elsa B. Kania from the Center for a New American Security commented at length on the accusations:

At The Intercept, meanwhile, George Joseph reported this week on IBM’s role in supplying “probably the first-ever video analytics surveillance […] in Asia” to Davao City in the southern Philippines amid a swathe of extra-judicial killings during now-President Rodrigo Duterte’s time as mayor and vice-mayor. The system’s alleged use against not only criminals but also local political opposition at a time when the killings were receiving vocal scrutiny from organizations such as Human Rights Watch conflicts with IBM’s professed commitment to “high standards of corporate responsibility.” The company’s role ended several years ago, however, and Chinese companies look set to step in as surveillance spreads nationwide.

In the years since the IBM program was phased out, Philippine police interest in cutting-edge surveillance infrastructure has hardly waned. National authorities are now looking to deploy real-time facial recognition across the country, in a project called “Safe Philippines,” and have considered technology from a variety of international vendors, including the Chinese telecom Huawei.

[…] The former consultant to the Philippine Army said his understanding is that the Safe Philippines installation will be modeled after Chinese facial recognition infrastructure, uniting CCTV installations and intelligence databases from security agencies across the country into one unified system. “The project aims to establish new CCTV networks and cascade them with all existing CCTV installations,” he said. “Patterned after the Chinese police state, the system is intended to tap databases from a variety of agencies of the government and integrate them with the data streams from the CCTV networks.”

In a more recent interview, the former consultant said that, given the scrutiny Huawei has drawn, the Department of the Interior and Local Government may opt for another technology equipment supplier, a claim that Densing, the Department of the Interior official, echoed in the January television interview.

Maya Wang, senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, said the potential adoption of a Chinese-style surveillance infrastructure, facilitated by Chinese companies, is very concerning given the “context of Duterte’s increasing abuses, drug war, and large-scale extrajudicial violence.” But Wang cautioned that the costs and expertise required for such systems are not easily replicable. The Philippine government could potentially “replicate one or some of the systems, but not all of the overlapping, multitiered mass surveillance systems seen in China,” she said. [Source]

Freedom House and others have warned of an emerging global “China Model” of digital control. Both Western companies’ activities in China and Chinese companies’ activities abroad are examined in James Griffiths’ new book, “The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet.”


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