URUMQI, China – At the end of a desolate road ravaged by prisons, deep within a complex bridge with cameras, American technology is powering one of the most aggressive parts of China’s surveillance state.
The computers inside the complex, known as the Urumqi Cloud Computing Center, are among the most powerful in the world. They can watch more surveillance footage in a day than a person in a year. They look for faces and patterns of human behavior. They track cars. They monitor the phone.
The Chinese government uses these computers to watch untold numbers of people in Xinjiang, a western region of China, where Beijing has launched a campaign and Daman In the name of combating terrorism.
Chips made by American semiconductor companies Intel and Nvidia have operated the complex since it opened in 2016. Until 2019, one at a time Report Said beijing using the Advanced Technology To imprison and Track mostly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, The new US-made chips helped the complex join the list of the world’s fastest supercomputers. Both Intel and Nvidia say they were unaware that they had misused their technology.
The Biden administration must decide the powerful US technology and its potential misuse as it tackles the country’s increasingly bitter relationship with China. Trump administration last year Sales of advanced semiconductors banned And other technology related to national security or human rights issues to Chinese companies. An important preliminary question for Mr. Biden would be whether to tighten, loosen or reconsider those restrictions.
Some figures in the technology industry argue that the ban went too far, cutting Valuable sale Lots of harmless use of the American product and to inspire China to make its own advanced semiconductors. Indeed, China is spending billions of dollars to develop high-end chips.
Conversely, critics of the use of American technology in oppressive systems say that buyers exploit workarounds and that industry and executives should track sales and usage more closely.
Companies often indicate that they have little say when their product is finished. Chips on the Urumqi campus, for example, were sold by Intel and Nvidia to Sugon, a Chinese company supporting the center. Sugon is an important supplier to the Chinese military and security forces, but it also makes computers for general companies.
Jason Mathen, founder director and former US intelligence officer at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, said the argument is not very good.
“Government and industry need to be more thoughtful now that technologies are moving to the point where you can potentially monitor real-time using millions of people using a single supercomputer,” he said.
There is no evidence of Nvidia or Intel chip sales that preceded Trump’s order, breaking any laws. Intel said that it no longer sells semiconductors for Sugan to supercomputers. Nevertheless, both Chinese continue to sell chips to the firm.
The existence of the Urumqi complex and the use of US chips is no secret, and there is no shortage that Beijing was using it for surveillance in Xinjiang. Since 2015, when the development of the complex began, the state media and Sugan boasted of their ties to the police.
Among the five-year-old marketing materials distributed in China, Nvidia promoted the capabilities of the Urumqi complex and claimed that “high-capacity video surveillance applications” won customer satisfaction.
Nvidia said that the content was a normal part of an effort to use technology to address urban issues such as pollution, traffic and crime in “smart cities”, China, following earlier versions of its products and that video surveillance. A Nvidia spokesperson said the company had no reason to believe that its products would be used “for any improper purpose”.
The spokesman said that Sugan “is not a significant Nvidia customer” since last year’s ban. He also said that Nvidia had not provided technical support for Sugon since then.
A spokesman for Intel, which still sells Sugan lower-end chips, said it would ban or cease trading with any customer who found it used its products to violate human rights .
Intel’s publicity on China’s business has had an impact within the company. A business unit drafted ethical guidelines for AI applications of its technology last year, according to three people familiar with the matter, who did not ask names because Intel did not make the guidelines public.
Sugone said in a statement that the complex was originally intended to track license plates and manage other smart city functions, but its system proved ineffective and switched to other uses. But as recently as September, the official Chinese government media Described complex As a center for processing video and images for the management of cities.
Advances in technology have given authorities around the world ample power to see and sort people. In China, leaders have Pushed technology Service An even more extreme. Artificial intelligence and genetic testing Used to screen people to see if there are Uigars, one of Xinjiang’s minority groups. Chinese companies and executives Claim their system One can find religious extremism or opposition to the Communist Party.
The Urumqi Cloud Computing Center – sometimes referred to as the Xinjiang Supercomputing Center – broke into the list of the world’s fastest computers in 2018, ranking No. 221. In November 2019, the new chips helped push his computer to number 135.
According to experts, two data centers run by Chinese security forces sit next door, which is a way to cut down on lag time. In addition, there are six prisons and re-education centers nearby.
When a New York Times reporter tried to visit the center in 2019, police officers from plain clubs were present. A guard drove him away.
Previous statements by the official Chinese media and Sugon depicted the complex as a monitoring center, among other uses. In August 2017, local officials said Center will support A chinese police Monitoring project Called Sharp eyes And it can search 100 million photos in a second. As of 2018, according to the company’s revelations, its computers can connect to 10,000 video feeds using artificial intelligence and analyze 1,000 simultaneously.
“With the help of cloud computing, big data, deep learning and other technologies, the intelligent video analysis engine can integrate police data and applications from video footage, Wi-Fi hot spots, checkpoint information, and facial recognition analysis. Various departments ”, within the Chinese police, Sugon said in an article posted on an official social media account in 2018.
On the occasion of a visit to the campus that year by local Communist Party leaders, it wrote on its website that computers had “advanced tracking for predictive policing before thinking after the fact.”
In Xinjiang, predictive arrests often act as shorthand for pre-emptive arrests aimed at abusive or threatening behavior for the party. This may include a show of Muslim piety, connection to a family living abroad, or having two phones or not holding the phone accordingly. Uighur testimony And officially Chinese policy document.
Jack Poulsen, Google, former engineer and founder of the advocacy group Tech Inquiry, said that technology helps to process large amounts of data that humans cannot process.
“When you have something near a surveillance state, your primary limitation is on your ability to identify events of interest within your feed,” he said. “The way you scale your monitoring is through machine learning and large-scale AI”
The Urumqi campus went into development before reports of abuse spread in Xinjiang. By 2019, governments around the world were opposed to China’s conduct in Xinjiang. That year, Sugan Computer appeared on the international supercomputing rankings using the Intel Super Ion Gold 5118 processor and the Nvidia Tesla V100. Advanced artificial intelligence chips.
It is unclear how or whether Sugan will powerfully get the chips to put Urukki on that list. But generally less technology can also be used for monitoring and suppression to perform harmless tasks. Customers can also use chips made abroad by resellers of other countries or by American companies.
Last year, police in two Xinjiang counties, Yankee and Kitai, purchased a low-level Intel chip-powered surveillance system, according to government procurement documents. In April Kizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture Public Security Bureau purchased a computing platform that, according to documents, used servers running less powerful Intel chips, although the agency was placed on the Trump administration blacklist last year for participation in surveillance.
China’s dependence on US chips has helped push the world back so far, said human rights watch researcher Maya Wang.
“I’m afraid in a few years’ time, Chinese companies and the government will find their way to develop chips and these capabilities,” Ms. Wang said. “Then there will be no way to try to stop these abuses.”
Paul Mojur reported from Urumqi, China, and Don Clarke from San Francisco.