New Reports Highlight Globalization of Surveillance Tech Industry

A new report from The Intercept’s Mara Hvistendahl uncovers how U.S. software giant Oracle worked with Chinese law enforcement to supply analytics software for China’s burgeoning surveillance state. At the same time, other reports have revealed how Chinese manufacturers of surveillance equipment are widely supplying governments and companies in the West. Although the international connections of surveillance tech companies are not new, the new revelations underscore how an industry built around mass surveillance has become increasingly normalized and global, despite deeply concerning questions about their ethical practices.

For The Intercept, Mara Hvistendahl described how Oracle marketed software to Chinese police that would allow them to mine disparate databases containing DNA, facial recognition images, vehicle registrations, and other data. Notably, Hvistendahl reported that Oracle did business with police in Xinjiang, both before and after the mass detention of Uyghurs there became widely known:

So explained a China-based Oracle engineer at a developer at the company’s California headquarters in 2018. Slides from the presentation, hosted on Oracle’s website, begin with a “case outline” listing four Oracle “product[s] used” by police to “do criminal analysis and prediction.” […] The concluding slide states that the software helped police, whose datasets had been “incomprehensible,” more easily “trace the key people/objects/” and “identify potential suspect[s]” — which in China often means dissidents.

[…] Oracle also boasted that its data security services were used by other Chinese police entities, according to the documents — including police in Xinjiang, the site of a against Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic groups.

[…] Moore, the Oracle spokesperson, said the company has “limited transactions with authorized ZTE and Huawei entities and NO transactions with any restricted ZTE or Huawei entities.” She conceded that Oracle had “limited authorized transactions with Xinjiang Public Security Bureau from 2011-2019,” adding that Oracle has not done business with the police bureau since the U.S. imposed on it in 2019.

But for at least a year before Oracle says it ended its business with the police bureau, there was widespread global awareness of authorities in Xinjiang rounding up ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities and interning them in inhumane reeducation camps. The data collected by Xinjiang police included DNA samples, biometric information, and family planning histories, and it was shot through with ethnic, religious, and other forms of bias. [Source]

The extensive report is the latest investigation into prominent American tech companies’ work with Chinese law enforcement agencies to build out the country’s vast network of tech-driven surveillance. In November, The New York Times reported on the use of chips made by Intel and Nvidia to power supercomputers in Xinjiang, used to process vast quantities of surveillance footage. These reports suggest that the know-how of Western companies plays an important role in the surveillance pipeline, providing tech at the analytical level to process the vast data inflows collected by the state.

Chinese software companies have developed and deployed analytical software of their own. The Washington Post reported that Huawei has “Uyghur alarms” that use facial recognition scans to automatically notify police, while The New York Times reported that Alibaba and Kingsoft Cloud have also created facial recognition software that automatically flags Uyghurs.

Last month, another investigation for The Intercept by Yael Grauer reported on a database produced by Landasoft, a Chinese “private defense company,” which collates data from a variety of reporting apps used to monitor ethnic minorities in Xinjiang:

Landasoft has branded the software that appears to be behind the database as “iTap,” a big data system it markets publicly.

The database spans 52 gigabytes and contains close to 250 million rows of data. It is fed by and provides data back to various apps, roughly a dozen of which appear linked to the database. These include:

Jingwang Weishi, an app for monitoring files on a mobile phone, which police in China have reportedly forced Uyghurs to download.

Baixing Anquan, which roughly translates to “people’s safety app” or “public safety app” and appears to be used by both citizens and police, including to enable citizens to snitch on one another to the authorities. […] [Source]

This week, a study by U.K.-based tech firm Comparitech ranked China as the world’s worst offender in invasive biometric data collection.

In response to their cooperation in human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the U.S. government has blacklisted several Chinese tech companies, banning them from importing American technology and vital components. But other Western nations have continued to do business with Chinese surveillance equipment suppliers, including those on U.S. blacklists. This week, Reuters’ Avi Asher-Schapiro reported that half of London’s boroughs have bought and deployed Chinese surveillance systems from suppliers previously linked to the abuse of Uyghurs:

At least 28 councils owned technology made by Hikvision, the world’s largest purveyor of video surveillance systems and vendor to Xinjiang police agencies, revealed data obtained by digital rights researcher Samuel Woodhams and seen exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

[…] All UK councils that bought Chinese technology said in their FOI responses they were not currently deploying facial recognition systems.

But several acknowledged owning additional hardware beyond cameras – including digital video recorders and network video recorders – that could be configured to carry out facial recognition or other analytical tasks, Woodhams said. [Source]

Businesses in the U.S. have also been exposed for continuing to buy Chinese surveillance equipment from companies on the U.S. blacklist. The Times’ Johana Bhuiyan reported that Amazon had a contract with security camera producer Dahua, which is on the U.S. government’s entity list and has produced facial recognition software that can detect the race of individuals and report to police when it identifies Uyghurs:

Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sent a letter to Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos one day after the Los Angeles Times reported on product support documents that suggest the company’s technology can sort passersby by race, issue “real-time warnings for non-local Uighurs,” and track “Uighurs with hidden terrorist inclinations.”

Dahua is among the Chinese companies included on the Commerce Department‘s entity list for its ties to “human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression” against Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group. The U.S. doesn’t restrict American companies such as Amazon from buying from businesses on the entity list, though it urges caution. Companies on the entity list are barred from purchasing American products.

“If these allegations against Dahua are true, it would mean that Amazon willfully ignored guidance from the United States government and purchased equipment from an entity-listed company that is complicit in China’s atrocities against” the Uighurs, read the joint letter addressed to Bezos. “While buying equipment from Dahua Technology is not illegal, it does raise several questions for you, as the chief executive of Amazon.” [Source]

Contracts for surveillance software and equipment are not the only deals under scrutiny. Last week, The Financial Times’ Yuan Yang and Madhumita Murgia reported that a Chinese national laboratory for advanced policing, with offices in Beijing and Urumqi, is funding research in London:

The flagship lab, which does not have a physical presence but is a network of researchers, is owned by China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, a state-owned defence company that has longstanding partnerships with the Chinese police and military.

[…] The Financial Times contacted all of the grant recipients, but almost all either refused interviews or would only speak off the record about their projects, citing the political sensitivity of their work. The only willing interviewee was Professor Tao Cheng at University College London, who was also the only overseas grant recipient.

Ms Cheng’s lab, known as the UCL Space Time Lab, analyses large data sets to create hourly or daily crime prediction maps for clients including the UK’s Metropolitan Police. Ms Cheng confirmed that she had been given grant funding from the NEL, but said that her work is not yet involved in policing in China. [Source]

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