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US tech products enable Chinese surveillance in Xinjiang, researchers find

High-Tech Cameras (Adrian Pingstone/WikiCommons)
August 07, 2021

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. technology companies are still supplying China’s surveillance state with equipment and software for monitoring populations and censoring information, including in the Xinjiang region, despite damning revelations that have led to genocide accusations against Beijing, according to researchers.

At least seven U.S. companies whose technology helped build a Chinese digital surveillance program known as the Golden Shield Project (GSP) are continuing to advance it by selling their products to China, say academic researchers Valentin Weber and Vasilis Ververis.

Their report, “China’s Surveillance State: A Global Project,” published Tuesday, comes as U.S. companies are facing heightened scrutiny over their ties to the Chinese government’s extensive and intrusive use of surveillance technology to monitor and control the populations of Xinjiang Tibet, and Hong Kong.

Launched in 1998, the Golden Shield Project (GSP) is China’s nationwide network-security project, featuring powerful surveillance and censorship technologies deployed by authorities to track political dissidents, activists, ethnic minorities and others seen as threats to the regime or to stability.

“This assistance continues until the present day. As our report shows, Cisco, Dell, HP, IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle still supply vital equipment to Chinese police departments across the country,” write Weber and Ververis.

Their report also says that Intel core processors are “likely being used for surveillance purposes” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) — helping police monitoring at the Urumqi Diwopu International Airport in the regional capital Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi), one of the few international gateways into and out of Xinjiang.

Chinese policies in the XUAR have come in for particular criticism with the U.S. government and some European legislatures have declared that persecution of the Uyghurs — including a network of internment camps believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other minorities since 2017 — amounts to genocide and crimes against humanity. China angrily denies the allegations.

“As this report demonstrates, entities based in democracies simply ignore that the Chinese companies they collaborate with also provide technology to the Chinese police and military,” says the report, whose findings are based on publicly available government bidding documents for technology products and services.

Troubling Chinese partners

The U.S. companies that sell into the U.S. $260 billion technology market in the world’s second-biggest economy may not be aware of compromising entanglements, the report says. Many of the exports and collaboration done by third parties and subsidiaries complicates due diligence evaluations.

Among the Chinese companies that use U.S. technology to provide surveillance and censorship services are several that have deployed systems in the XUAR, even as Washington has stepped up scrutiny of corporate supply chains to stop American firms from abetting forced labor and other repressive practices.

Beijing Zhongke Fuxing Information Technology Co Ltd., for example, has a “disturbing involvement in Xinjiang,” where it has completed several digital surveillance-related projects and equipped detention centers, the report says.

The company lists U.S. tech concerns Microsoft, IBM, Intel, HP, Oracle, CISCO and Dell EMC’s Greenplum as its commercial partners.

Another Chinese company, Xiamen Dragon Information Technology Co. Ltd., provides public security intelligence platforms, including face capture equipment that uses the Intel XEON dual 6-core processor to identify mobile devices and information from instant-messaging software from smartphones.

The firm, whose international partners include Microsoft, Oracle, Dell, HP, IBM and Cisco, also provides a system that allows police to apply ethnic tags such as Uyghur, Tibetan, and Han Chinese to a subject to help it discover groups of people.

Xiamen Dragon signed an agreement with the Tibet Autonomous Region’s Public Security Department in 2017 to build a big data and cloud computing product to foster a “safe Tibet” and a “stable social atmosphere,” the report says.

China’s Neusoft Corp., whose Golden Shield role included helping the Ministry of Public Security build its National Basic Population Information Resource Database project in the early 2000s, also helps XUAR authorities process data collected from the household registration system, fingerprint collection, and facial recognition. It has subsidiaries in the U.S., Japan, and Europe, and cooperates with Intel on network technology, the researchers say.

‘Due diligence is ineffective’

“Our findings show that U.S. technology companies’ due diligence is ineffective,” Weber said in an email to RFA. “A change in behavior will unlikely come from companies themselves, since they’re profit driven.”

“If the U.S. government is really concerned about what is happening in Xinjiang…then it needs to make clear to U.S. companies that if they continue to be complicit in China’s surveillance state this may come at a financial cost for them at home,” he said. “This may induce a change in behavior abroad.”

RFA contacted the U.S. companies mentioned in the report for comment, and received responses from only Intel and Microsoft.

“While we do not always know nor can we control what products our customers create or the applications end-users may develop, Intel does not support or tolerate our products being used to violate human rights,” said Nancy Sanchez from Intel Corp.’s corporate communications office in an email.

“Where we become aware of a concern that Intel products are being used by a business partner in connection with abuses of human rights, we will restrict or cease business with the third party until and unless we have high confidence that Intel’s products are not being used to violate human rights,” she said.

Microsoft Corp. has put in place “a robust set of policies intended to safeguard against the misuse of our technology, including refusing to deploy technologies like facial recognition in ways that may put people’s safety or human rights at risk,” said a spokesperson said the Redmond, Washington-based company.

“We require our partners to abide by these policies, and we investigate and enforce violations up to ending the relationship,” the spokesperson said in an email. “We regularly review our operations and engage policymakers, academia, industry, and advocacy organizations to continually improve our policies.”

Weber and Ververis recommend that companies that do business with Chinese tech firms increase due diligence, and they urge governments to review Chinese-owned firms that operate or own subsidiaries in their territories to determine whether the companies supply Chinese public security bureaus and the military.

Their report also recommends that U.S. companies check third-party contractors that buy their products in China to ensure that tech exports are not used in systems deployed by public security bureaus.

‘Absolutely reprehensible’

Uyghur rights groups criticized the U.S. companies for abetting surveillance and other abusive policies toward the 12 million Uyghurs in the XUAR.

“It is absolutely reprehensible that U.S. companies are powering the Chinese state and putting billions of innocent people at risk globally, as well as being complicit in the Uyghur genocide,” said Rushan Abbas, executive director of Washington-based Campaign for Uyghurs, in an email to RFA.

“In particular, as this police state and tools of oppression have been perfected in carrying out the Uyghur genocide, our government must recognize that swift action is needed to halt the sale of American equipment to a genocidal regime,” she said.

Companies providing technology to China despite the genocide accusations, increasing U.S. sanctions of senior Chinese officials, and blacklists of Chinese companies for using Uyghur forced labor, “will be held accountable in the future for their shameful role,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress.

“The material and technical support continuously provided by some American and Western high-tech companies to China means they’re actively aiding and abetting China’s genocide of Uyghurs,” he wrote in an email to RFA.

“These companies should immediately stop aiding and abetting China’s genocide of Uyghurs by cutting any material and technical support they provide to a totalitarian regime that not only commits genocide against Uyghurs but also poses the biggest national security threat to the U.S.-led Western democracies,” he said.

The Weber and Ververis report was supported by a grant from UK-based Top10VPN.com, a website that reviews virtual private network services and publishes news and investigations on digital privacy and internet security.