Report: US Tech Firms Helped Develop Chinese Surveillance Tools

Credit: Herr Loeffler/ShutterstockCredit: Herr Loeffler/Shutterstock

The Intercept reported yesterday that IBM, Google, and Xilinx helped develop technology used by China's government to spy on 200 million people. According to the report, the U.S. tech companies worked with a Chinese analytics company named Semptian via the OpenPower Foundation, a non-profit established by IBM and Google to "assist data centers in rethinking their approach to technology."

Semptian joined the OpenPower Foundation in September 2015. That was after reports exposed the company's relationship to China's government, to which The Intercept said it has supplied a variety of services used to "secretly collect people’s email records, phone calls, text messages, cell phone locations and web browsing histories" via chips embedded in the country's phone and internet networks.

The Intercept published documents from Semptian, which it obtained by posing as a potential customer, as well as an edited video demonstrating what the company's products can do. (The video was purportedly edited to hide personally identifying info.) Anonymous sources told The Intercept that Semptian's products are used to surveil 200 million of China's roughly 800 million Internet users.

It's not clear to what extent IBM, Google and Xilinx collaborated with Semptian. IBM denied a direct relationship with Semptian; the other companies declined to comment on the report. The OpenPower Foundation reportedly told The Intercept that any "technology available through the Foundation is general purpose, commercially available worldwide and does not require a U.S. export license."

That might clarify the legality of any collaboration between these companies and Semptian, but it doesn't address the moral aspects of allowing the company to join the OpenPower Foundation despite being a known partner of the Chinese government in mass spying. We don't often hold gun-makers accountable when someone is shot, for example, but there are restrictions on the sale of most weapons.

The Intercept's report probably won't do U.S. companies any favors when it comes to working with their Chinese counterparts. Tech companies have already lobbied against increasing tariffs, sales restrictions and other regulations stemming from the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China. Now some of the most prominent members of the industry have been accused of aiding Chinese surveillance.

We've reached out to IBM, Google, Xilinx and the OpenPower Foundation to request additional information about their relationship with Semptian. We'll update this post if the companies or non-profit respond.