US Tech Giants Are Top Contributors to China’s Surveillance State

July 16, 2019 Updated: July 16, 2019

The IBM and Google led non-profit “OpenPOWER Foundation may be skirting technology-transfer restrictions to assist Chinese censors to surveil 200 million people.

With Western companies using patents to protect their intellectual property and set technical standards, China’s State Council launched an initiative in 2006 to influence international technology standards to “make market space for Chinese innovations.” Leveraging its 1989 Technology Standardization Law as the “sole legal basis for China’s standardization system,” foreign firms seeking to do business in China must “proactively disclose any patents which may be infringed by the proposed standard.”

China tech-standards start as recommendations by university scientists at government-funded institutions, including the National University of Defense Technology. A researcher setting a standard favored by Chinese companies is eligible to receive “bonuses, travel permissions, or credits toward promotions and tenure.” Given the limited value of foreign patents in China is offset by market size, IBM and Google are the premium sponsors for a Linux open-source software non-profit called “OpenPOWER.”

The Intercept reported that IBM under the OpenPOWER banner as an effort to “drive innovation” in China, has been leading a collaboration with China’s Semptian Big Data Solutions and top U.S. chip manufacturer Xilinx to “advance a breed of microprocessors that enable computers to analyze vast amounts of data more efficiently.”

A source that gave documents to The Intercept claimed that Shenzhen-based Semptian uses high-performance cloud computing to “enhance the capabilities of internet surveillance and censorship technology it provides to human rights-abusing security agencies in China” that routinely surveils 200 million Chinese Internet users each day.

The Intercept “after contacting Semptian under the pretext of a potential customer, received documents through Semptian’s iNext unit for a product called Aegis that can “store and analyze unlimited data” to offer “a full view to the virtual world”; reveal “the connections of everyone”; and provide “location information for everyone in the country.”

The Intercept sources revealed that Aegis is operating in China’s phone and internet networks to censor information and assist government agents to “collect people’s email records, phone calls, text messages, cellphone locations, and web browsing histories.”

Although Semptian, Google, and Xilinx did not respond to Intercept requests for  comment, the OpenPOWER Foundation issued a statement claiming it “does not become involved, or seek to be informed, about the individual business strategies, goals or activities of its members,” due to antitrust and competition laws.

An IBM spokesman stated that the company “has not worked with Semptian on joint technology development,” but declined to answer questions regarding IBM’s SuperVessel OpenPOWER cloud computing platform created by IBM Research China.

IBM advertises it has offered SuperVessel cloud since 2015 as a “virtual R&D engine for the creation and testing of applications serving burgeoning areas such as mobile and data analysis.” IBM claims POWER applications for big data, Internet of Things, and data virtualization consume “90% lower” power and are “300+ times faster in pattern matching, 200+ times faster for compression, 100+ times faster in machine learning.”

Such high speed and low latency performance was only available from U.S. super- computers using field programable gate arrays coprocessors to run “algorithms at very high speed and low latency.” Such U.S. hardware is subject to strict export controls.

But IBM Research and Xilinx announced in 2016 “they will be enabling FPGA-based acceleration within the SuperVessel OpenPOWER development cloud” for demanding artificial intelligence applications including “big data analytics and machine learning.”

Xilinx microprocessors use the same Intel “customized” Xeon and Xeon Phi used in U.S. supercomputers to perform up to 180-petaFLOPS. Export of the chips to China was banned by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 2015, but Xilinx coprocessors employed in the SuperVessel cloud solutions seem to skirt the chip export restrictions.

Google search exited China in 2010, after Gmail accounts of a number of Chinese human rights activists had been hacked and the Chinese regime demanded Google comply with requests to filter its search results. But Google continues to work toward launching a Chinese censor-compliant search engine named Project Dragonfly.

The key to Google’s scale is its Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) for neural networks that delivers “15–30X higher performance and 30-80X higher performance-per-watt than contemporary CPUs and GPUs.” Google Deep Mind artificial intelligence capability was demonstrated in its 4 game to 1 victory in the AlphaGo versus Lee Sedol competition.

Exporting TPU processors would undoubtedly be subject to U.S. Commerce Department restrictions, but The New York Times reported on Feb. 12, 2018 that Google, just like IBM, “would allow other companies to buy access to those chips through its cloud-computing service.”

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