URUMQI, China – At the end of a deserted road surrounded by prisons, deep inside a complex filled with cameras, American technology controls one of the most invasive parts of China’s surveillance state.
Computers inside the complex, known as the Urumqi Cloud Computing Center, are among the most powerful in the world. They can see more surveillance footage in a day than a person could in a year. They look for faces and patterns of human behavior. They track cars. They monitor phones.
The Chinese government uses these computers to see countless people in Xinjiang, a western region of China, where Beijing has released a campaign for surveillance and repression in the fight against terrorism.
Powerful American technology and its potential abuses cut to the heart of the decisions facing the Biden administration as it tackles the country’s increasingly bitter relationship with China. The Trump administration last year banned the sale of advanced semiconductors and other technology to Chinese companies involved in national security or human rights issues. A crucial early question for Mr Biden will be whether these restrictions need to be created, loosened or reconsidered.
Some figures in the technology industry claim that the ban went too far, cutting off valuable U.S. product sales with lots of harmless uses and encouraging China to create its own advanced semiconductors. In fact, China spends billions of dollars developing advanced chips.
In contrast, critics of the use of American technology in repressive systems say that buyers are taking advantage of solutions and that industry and officials should track sales and use more closely.
Companies often point out that they do not have much to say about where their products end up. Chips in the Urumqi complex, for example, were sold by Intel and Nvidia to Sugon, the Chinese company that supports the center. Sugon is a major supplier to Chinese military and security forces, but it also makes computers for ordinary companies.
This argument is not good enough anymore, said Jason Matheny, the founding director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology and a former U.S. intelligence official.
“Government and industry need to be more thoughtful now that the technologies are moving to a point where you can perform real-time monitoring using a single supercomputer on millions of people potentially,” he said.
There is no evidence that sales of Nvidia or Intel chips that preceded the Trump order broke any laws. Intel said it no longer sells semiconductors for supercomputers to Sugon. Still, both continue to sell chips to the Chinese company.
The existence and use of American chips in the Urumqi complex is no secret, and there was no shortage of evidence that Beijing used it for surveillance in Xinjiang. Since 2015, when the complex began to develop, state media and Sugon had boasted of its ties to the police.
In five-year-old marketing materials distributed in China, Nvidia promoted the capabilities of the Urumqi complex and boasted that “high-capacity video surveillance application” had won customer satisfaction.
Nvidia said the materials referred to older versions of its products and that video surveillance was then a normal part of the discussion around “smart cities”, an effort in China to use technology to address urban issues such as pollution, traffic and crime. A spokesman for Nvidia said the company had no reason to believe its products would be used “for any wrong purpose.”
The spokesman added that Sugon “has not been a significant Nvidia customer” since last year’s ban. He also said that Nvidia had not provided technical assistance to Sugon since then.
A spokesman for Intel, which still sells Sugon low-end chips, said it would limit or stop the business with any customer that the company found had used its products to violate human rights.
Announcement of Intel’s China business seems to have had an impact within the company. A business unit last year drew up ethical guidelines for its technology’s AI applications, according to three people who knew about the case, who asked not to be named because Intel had not published the guidelines.
Sugon said in a statement that the complex was originally aimed at tracking license plates and managing other smart urban tasks, but its systems proved inefficient and were switched to other uses. But as recently as September, official Chinese government media described the complex as a center for processing video and images for city administration.
Advances in technology have given authorities around the world considerable power to monitor and sort people. In China, leaders have pushed technology to an even greater extreme. Artificial intelligence and genetic testing are used to screen people to see if they are Uighurs, one of Xinjiang’s minority groups. Chinese companies and authorities claim that their systems can detect religious extremism or opposition to the Communist Party.
Urumqi Cloud Computing Center – also sometimes called Xinjiang Supercomputing Center – broke into the list of the world’s fastest computers in 2018 with rank No. 221. In November 2019, new chips helped push its computer to No. 135.
Two data centers operated by Chinese security forces are sitting next to each other, an expert possibly reducing the delay time. Nearby are also six prisons and rehabilitation centers.
When a New York Times journalist attempted to visit the center in 2019, he was followed by police officers in plain clothes. A guard turned him away.
The official Chinese media and Sugon’s earlier statements show the complex as a surveillance center, among other uses. In August 2017, local officials said the center would support a Chinese police surveillance project called Sharp Eyes and that it could search 100 million photos in a second. In 2018, according to company data, its computers could connect to 10,000 video feeds and analyze 1,000 simultaneously using artificial intelligence.
“Using cloud computing, big data, deep learning and other technologies, the intelligent video analysis machine can integrate police data and applications from videos, Wi-Fi hotspots, checkpoint information and face recognition analysis to support the operation of various departments,” said the Chinese police. Sugon in an article from 2018 that was sent to an official account for social media.
On the occasion of a visit by local Communist Party leaders to the complex that year, it wrote on its website that computers had “upgraded the mindset from post-tracing to before-the-actual predictive police control.”
In Xinjiang, predictive policing often serves as a shorthand for preventive arrests directed at behavior that is considered disloyal or threatening to the party. It could include a show of Muslim piety, links to family living abroad or owning two phones or not owning a phone, according to Uighur testimony and official Chinese political documents.
Technology helps sort out large amounts of data that humans cannot process, said Jack Poulson, a former Google engineer and founder of the law firm Tech Inquiry.
“When you have something approaching a surveillance state, your primary limitation is on your ability to identify events of interest in your feeds,” he said. “The way you scale up your surveillance is machine learning and large-scale AI”
The Urumqi complex was under development before reports of abuse in Xinjiang were widespread. In 2019, governments across China protested China’s behavior in Xinjiang. That same year, the Sugon computer appeared in the international ranking of supercomputers using Intel Xeon Gold 5118 processors and the Nvidia Tesla V100 advanced artificial intelligence chips.
It is not clear how or if Sugon will obtain chips that are powerful enough to keep the Urumqi complex on this list. But less technology typically used to run harmless tasks can also be used for surveillance and repression. Customers can also use dealers in other countries or chips made by US companies abroad.
Last year, police in two Xinjiang counties, Yanqi and Qitai, purchased surveillance systems running on lower-level Intel chips, according to public procurement documents. Public security agency Kizilsu Kyrgyz Prefecture bought a computer platform in April that used servers running less powerful Intel chips, according to the documents, even though the agency had been blacklisted by a Trump administration last year for its involvement in surveillance.
China’s dependence on US chips has so far helped the world push back, said Maya Wang, a Chinese researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“I’m afraid in a few years, Chinese companies and governments will find their own way of developing chips and these capabilities,” Wang said. “Then there will be no way to get hold of trying to stop these abuses.”
Paul Mozur reported from Urumqi, China and Don Clark from San Francisco.