An investigation by The New York Times has exposed how chips made by U.S. technology giants Intel and Nvidia have been used to power the expansive digital infrastructure behind China’s surveillance state. Reporting from a vast “cloud computing center” in Xinjiang built to handle the reams of surveillance footage picked up across the region, Paul Mozur and Don Clark noted the role of these centers in China’s surveillance infrastructure, and the U.S.-made tech that keeps them operating:
The computers inside the complex, known as the Urumqi Cloud Computing Center, are among the world’s most powerful. They can watch more surveillance footage in a day than one person could in a year. They look for faces and patterns of human behavior. They track cars. They monitor phones.
[…] Chips made by Intel and Nvidia, the American semiconductor companies, have powered the complex since it opened in 2016. By 2019, at a time when reports said that Beijing was using advanced technology to imprison and track Xinjiang’s mostly Muslim minorities, new U.S.-made chips helped the complex join the list of the world’s fastest supercomputers. Both Intel and Nvidia say they were unaware of what they called misuse of their technology.
[…] The Urumqi Cloud Computing Center — also sometimes called the Xinjiang Supercomputing Center — broke onto the list of the world’s fastest computers in 2018, ranking No. 221. In November 2019, new chips helped push its computer to No. 135.
The New York Times investigation offers an examination of the hardware that is central to the processing of surveillance data. A recently published report by ChinaFile looked at the physical and human infrastructure, examining government procurement notices to trace officially purchased thermal-imaging cameras, WiFi sniffers, or facial recognition software.
While domestic Chinese hardware manufacturers such as Hikvision and Dahua have played a critical role in supplying the cameras used in some domestic surveillance programs, China has so far struggled to build up a domestic chipmaker capable of competing with established semiconductor companies such as Intel and Nvidia. For that reason, it has relied on the semiconductor chips built by foreign multinationals to construct the supercomputers and surveillance data processing centers. In June 2019, the Trump administration banned the sale of advanced chips to Chinese companies implicated in human rights violations.
See more recent coverage of how China’s reliance on foreign semiconductors has driven the country to spend vast amounts to foster a homegrown chipmaking sector as part of its efforts to achieve “national self-reliance,” via CDT.
There is no evidence that Intel or Nvidia broke any laws in selling their chips to China, as the sales took place before the 2019 ban. For its part, Nvidia has denied and tried to obfuscate its role in supporting China’s surveillance network, despite having boasted about it in the past:
.@nvidia claims it didn't know its chips are powering a giant PRC police supercomputer in Xinjiang used to surveil Uyghurs' faces, phones, cars, & more https://t.co/TnqHCZXDPL
but 5 yrs ago, Nvidia promoted the Urumqi complex's “high capacity video surveillance application”
— Charles Rollet (@CharlesRollet1) November 23, 2020
— Charles Rollet (@CharlesRollet1) November 23, 2020
Intel and Nvidia are not the only major tech companies that have helped to prop up the Chinese surveillance network. As The Wall Street Journal’s Liza Lin and Josh Chin reported last year, other well-known companies including Seagate, HP, and Western Digital have “nurtured, courted and profited” from China’s surveillance industry:
Participation in China’s surveillance market offers companies and investors an opportunity to grab a piece of a booming new field and improve their products. China’s video surveillance market reached $10.6 billion in 2018, with the government accounting for about half of those purchases, according to industry analyst IDC.
Of 37 Chinese firms singled out last November by the Beijing-backed China Security and Protection Industry Association for outstanding contributions to the country’s surveillance industry, 17 have publicly disclosed financing, commercial or supply-chain relationships with U.S. technology companies. Several had multiple connections. [Source]
Joint ventures founded by tech giants such as Google and IBM have also contributed to systems used to monitor the internet usage of millions of Chinese citizens.
Analysts are also concerned about the implications of a fully-developed domestic Chinese chipmaking industry—not only over how it could enable China’s its domestic surveillance infrastructure development, but how it could affect surveillance globally. In April, a report by Sheena Greitens for the Brookings Institution examined the implications of the growing demand for China’s global surveillance exports:
Countries and cities around the world have increasingly opted to employ public security and surveillance technology platforms from China. The drivers of this trend are complex, stemming from the expansion of China’s geopolitical interests, the increasing market power of its technology companies, and conditions in recipient states that make Chinese technology an attractive choice despite concerns about security and privacy.
[…] In addition to Huawei, Chinese companies such as Hikvision, ZTE, Dahua, China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation (CEIEC), and others are often involved. The identity of some of the companies involved in the export of surveillance technologies is one factor that has raised concerns in the U.S. national security and foreign policy community. At least some of the companies are directly linked to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) defense-industrial complex. CEIEC, for example, has contributed significantly to public security technology projects in several countries in Latin America; it is a state-owned enterprise under China Electronics Corporation that concentrates on defense electronics, and was previously sanctioned by the U.S. for nonproliferation violations. Others, such as Hikvision and Dahua, have been implicated in and sanctioned for human rights violations — as the filing termed it, “the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and hightechnology surveillance” — in Xinjiang. [Source]
For now, the fact that many parts of China’s surveillance network are reliant on foreign technology means that Western countries still have some leverage to push back. As the roles played by some U.S. tech companies in abetting the construction of China’s surveillance state becomes increasingly clear, a question is emerging over whether the firms should be viewed as producing a good which begets greater control:
A real question is whether tech sales should be treated like weapon sales. Esp as supercomputers get better at pop. scale surveillance. It’s only a matter of time before China produces its own solutions, which means this course for the future use of tech has already been charted.
— Paul Mozur 孟建國 (@paulmozur) November 23, 2020