At the end of a deserted prison-lined street, amid a complex of surveillance cameras, US-developed technology powers one of the most invasive parts of China’s state surveillance apparatus.
The computers in the complex, known as the Urumqi Cloud Computing Center, are among the most powerful in the world. You can track more surveillance images in a day than a person can see in a year. They look for faces and patterns of human behavior. Track cars. Monitor phones.
The Chinese government is using these computers to monitor immense numbers of people in Xinjiang, a region in the west of the country where Beijing has launched a campaign of surveillance and repression in the name of counter-terrorism.
Chips made by Intel and Nvidia, two American semiconductor manufacturers, have propelled the complex since it opened in 2016. 2019, at a time when Beijing was reportedly accused of using high technology to detain and persecute minorities, especially Muslims. From Xinjiang, new chips made in the United States helped put the centre’s computers on the list of the world’s fastest supercomputers. Both Intel and Nvidia said they didn’t know what they define as abuse of their technology.
Powerful technology and its potential abuse will be at the heart of the decisions the Biden government must make. The Trump administration has banned the sale of advanced semiconductors and other technologies to Chinese companies that deal with national security or human rights issues. A crucial question for President-elect Joe Biden will be to determine whether these restrictions will be tightened, relaxed or reconsidered.
Some tech industry figures argue that the ban was exaggerated, blocked the valuable sales of American technology products with a plethora of innocuous uses, and encouraged China to make advanced semiconductors of its own. In fact, China is investing billions of dollars in developing cutting-edge chips.
In contrast, critics of the use of American technology in repressive systems claim that buyers are looking for alternative ways to avoid restrictions and that industry and government need closer scrutiny of the sale and use of this type of equipment.
Companies often point out that they have little control over the final destination of their products. For example, the chips in the Urumqi complex were sold by Intel and Nvidia to Sugon, the Chinese company that operates the center. Sugon is an important supplier to the Chinese military and security forces, but also makes computers for ordinary businesses.
That argument is no longer enough, said Jason Matheny, director and founder of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University and a former US intelligence officer.
“Government and industry need to think more now that technologies are so advanced that it may be possible to monitor millions of people in real time with a single supercomputer,” he said.
There is no evidence that the Nvidia or Intel chip sales that occurred prior to Trump’s order violated any law. Intel said it no longer sells semiconductors for use in Sugon’s supercomputers. However, the two companies continue to sell chips to the Chinese company.
The existence of the installation and use of American chips in the Urumqi complex is no secret, and there is no shortage of evidence that Beijing is using them for surveillance purposes. Since 2015, when development of the complex began, the state media and Sugon have been bridging the links between the company and the police.
In promotional materials distributed in China five years ago, Nvidia drew attention to the capabilities of the Urumqi Complex and bragged that “its high-capacity video surveillance application” has generated customer satisfaction.
Nvidia said the promotional materials refer to previous versions of its products and that video surveillance is a normal part of the discussion of “smart cities,” an attempt by the Chinese government to use technology to solve urban problems. like pollution, traffic and crime. An Nvidia spokesman said the company had no reason to believe that its products could be used for “any improper purpose.”
The spokesman added that Sugon is “no longer a major customer” of Nvidia since last year’s ban. He also stated that Nvidia Sugon had stopped providing technical assistance after that.
A spokesman for Intel, which is still selling simpler chips to Sugon, said it would limit or stop doing business with customers who have used its products to violate human rights.
The disclosure of information about Intel’s business in China appears to have impacted the company. One of its divisions set ethics rules for its artificial intelligence applications last year, according to three informed people who asked that their names not be disclosed because Intel did not publicize the guidelines.
Sugon said in a statement that the complex was originally intended to track license plates and manage other tasks related to the Smart Cities project, but its systems were found to be ineffective and used for other purposes. In September, an official media company of the Chinese government described the complex as a hub for the city government’s video and image processing.
Advances in technology have given authorities around the world significant powers to watch and track people. In China, the country’s leaders have taken technology to an even greater level. Artificial intelligence and genetic testing are used to evaluate people and determine if they are Uighurs, one of the minorities in the Xinjiang region. Chinese companies and officials say their systems can detect religious extremism or opposition to the Communist Party.
The Urumqi Cloud Computing Center – sometimes referred to as the Xinjiang Supercomputing Center – was named 221 on the list of the world’s fastest supercomputers in 2018. In November 2019, new chips helped push him to 135th place.
According to experts, two data processing centers operated by Chinese security forces are located right next to the complex in order to potentially reduce the delay in data transmission. There are also six prisons and re-education centers nearby.
When a New York Times reporter tried to visit the center in 2019, plainclothes officials followed him. A security guard prevented him from entering.
Official Chinese media and earlier statements by Sugon show the complex as a surveillance center. In August 2017, local officials said the center would support a Chinese police oversight project called Sharp Eyes and that the center’s processing capacity was 100 million photos per second. According to the company, in 2018 computers had the ability to connect to 10,000 video feeds and analyze up to 1,000 of them simultaneously using artificial intelligence.
“Using cloud computing, big data, in-depth learning, and other technologies, the intelligent video analytics engine can integrate police data and video image applications, Wi-Fi hotspots, and station information, surveillance and facial recognition analytics to support the operations of various departments,” within the Chinese police force, said Sugon in an article posted on one of his official social media accounts in 2018.
During a visit by local Communist Party leaders to the complex earlier this year, the company wrote on its website that computers “updated our thinking, from follow-up to previous predictive policing”.
In Xinjiang, the term predictive policing is often used as a euphemism for pre-trial detention for those whose behavior is classified as party-loyal. Such behavior may include demonstrations of the Islamic faith, links with relatives living abroad, possession of two phones, or lack of a phone, according to Uyghurs and official Chinese government documents.
The technology helps select large amounts of data that humans can’t process, said Jackson Poulson, a former Google engineer and founder of the Tech Inquiry activist organization.
“When you have something close to being monitored, the main limitation is the ability to identify events that interest you in your feeds,” he said. “The path to expand surveillance is through machine learning and artificial intelligence on a large scale.”
The Urumqi Complex was developed before information about abuse became widespread in Xinjiang. In 2019, governments around the world protested China’s behavior in Xinjiang. That year, Sugon’s computer with Intel Xeon Gold 5118 processors and Nvidia Tesla V100 advanced artificial intelligence chips was featured in the international supercomputer ranking.
It is unclear how or if Sugon will get chips that are strong enough to keep Sugon’s supercomputers in the ranking. However, less developed technologies that are typically used for innocuous tasks can also be used for surveillance and enforcement. Customers can also turn to resellers in other countries or to chips made by American companies outside the country.
Last year, according to official procurement documents, police in two counties in Xinjiang, Yanqi and Qitai, purchased surveillance systems that run on less powerful Intel chips. The self-government public security service in the Kizilsu region of Kyrgyzstan acquired a computer platform in April that documents use servers with less powerful Intel chips. However, the agency was blacklisted by the Trump administration last year for its involvement in surveillance operations.
China’s initial reliance on American chips has helped the world put pressure on the country’s government, said Maya Wang, who studies Chinese issues at Human Rights Watch.
“I fear that in a few years, companies and the Chinese government will find ways to develop their own chips and skills,” said Wang. “And then there will be no way to prevent these abuses.”