Can Intel & Nvidia Escape Blame for China's Vast Repression?

A SpyTalk investigation makes the case that the Silicon Valley giants know its chips are used in mass surveillance of Uyghurs

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Silicon Valley semiconductor giants Intel and Nvidia are deeply enmeshed in China’s repression of its Uyghur minority, despite their insistence that they don’t know about or shouldn’t be held responsible for the end-use of mass surveillance systems with their advanced computer chips, a SpyTalk analysis finds.

The typically close technical coordination between chip makers and system builders make it unlikely that actual end-use and end-user identity—mass surveillance of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population by China’s security services—would escape the attention of chip companies’ executives. 

Eight years ago Intel started fashioning  a “strategic cooperation” agreement with Huawei, the giant state-owned telecom company that most experts say is a virtual arm of Chinese intelligence. In October, 2012 they signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the deal.

Intel and Nvidia, a lesser known but huge Silicon Valley chip manufacturer, have said previouslythey were unaware that their products were being used in a supercomputer center that powers China’s mass surveillance of Uyghurs in its far western Xinjiang region.

But a SpyTalk analysis of the available data strongly suggests otherwise.

The two firms were highlighted in a New York Times article on November 22 for supplying thousands of CPUs (central processing units) and GPUs (graphics processing units) for a supercomputer at the Urumqi Cloud Computing Center in Xinjiang. Without these chips, which can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars each, the Urumqi center would be unable to process massive data from thousands of closed circuit television images, telephone calls, internet searches, and the like used to support a campaign of suppression against the native Uyghur population.

There’s more: The two American chip firms and other U.S. companies are also supplying their expensive chips to various Chinese companies like Hikvision that are operating in the China-wide surveillance space, which in turn equip the Ministry of Public Security, Beijing’s vast domestic police organ, according to an essay in the recently published book, China’s Quest for Foreign Technology, and in the online technology news site IPVM.  In her essay “Technology and the surveillance state,” Dahlia Peterson names California-based Amax, Xilinx, Western Digital, and Seagate as key to powering China’s mass surveillance network. Seagate holds the distinction of developing the world’s first “AI-enabled surveillance” hard drive  for China’s mass-surveillance program.

Targeted

The police projects are specifically for “Uyghur detection and analytics,” Peterson writes. That’s the name given to the supercomputer-based systems that use “deep learning,” a subset of machine learning, which is a type of artificial intelligence. Uyghur detection and analytics accomplishes tasks like picking out minority ethnic Uyghurs in a crowd of majority Han Chinese in China’s big cities.

Nvidia, often rendered by the company as NVIDIA, is a fast-growing hardware firm also headquartered in Silicon Valley that specializes in graphics processor units and platforms that provide advanced AI for gaming, medical imaging, facial recognition, and other uses. Their name is not an acronym but is meant to suggest “video” and echo Roman mythology.

Intel and Nvidia both denied knowing that the end-use of the supercomputer at the Urumqi Cloud Center was mass surveillance targeting Uyghurs for possible imprisonment in an extensive network of camps.

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In response to a similar story a year ago in the Wall Street Journal, Intel’s spokesman said that they opposed abuse of human rights and had a policy to not ship products if they would be used for human rights abuses, noting that their products are sold and resold “into countless systems.” 

This week, Intel issued a similarly worded statement to SpyTalk, saying that it complies with U.S. export controls and local laws in the countries where they operate.

“Under our global human rights principles, Intel does not support or tolerate our products being used to violate human rights,” said spokesman Wiliam Moss 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.”

A spokesperson for Nvidia, Liz Archibald, maintained that“we cannot control what applications run on our processors, but we strongly insist that our customers comply with U.S. laws, including export control restrictions. We do not,” she said, “condone any bad behavior or misuse of our processors.”

Translation: We’re not responsible for how others use our chips. 

The business models of Intel and Nvidia, however, suggest that they do know something of their customers’ activities, not the least in order to address technical issues that arise after the end-user flips the “on” switch for new equipment containing their world famous semiconductor chips. It makes the denials from the two companies look like the Sergeant Shultz defense: “I see nothing, I know nothing!”

Close Quarters

Intel and NVIDIA in China are staffed with hundreds of locally hired people with job titles like field sales engineerfield applicationsengineer, and customer engineer, whose duties require close liaison with clients that assemble systems running on their computer chips. They trade mountains of data with each other for systems as small as laptops and as massive as supercomputers as they are designed, built, tested, and deployed. 

The need for continuous technical collaboration between chipmakers, equipment manufacturers, and users make it implausible that engineers and their managers in these American companies would not know the intended end-use—as in Uyghur detection and analytics—and the actual end-users—the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau—of  supercomputers in China run on their CPUs and GPUs.  

There are other reasons to doubt the denials by Intel and Nvidia that they knew how their chips would be used by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security.

Commissars in the Woodwork 

The locally hired engineers in these American companies are almost all Chinese nationals, normally employed through HR outsourcing services like CIIC, a massive Chinese human resources company that supplies personnel to foreign enterprises. CIIC is a competitor to older Chinese government HR outsourcing organs like the FESCO group of companies that are ostensibly controlled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but suspected by U.S. intelligence sources of being influenced by the PRC Ministry of State Security.

As such, Chinese employees of Intel and Nvidia who have close contact with clients such as the Chinese supercomputer manufacturer Sugon are probably monitored by Communist Party Branches (党支部, dang zhi bu) of their Chinese HR outsourcer. These “branches,” in essence, political commissars, are a ubiquitous presence in Chinese enterprises, especially those dealing with foreign companies. When Intel China was established in the late 1980s, the party placed them covertly in the company, then overtly. Today, CIIC's Communist Party Branch at Intel Beijing, for example, appears on the surface to be more like a social organization, but alludes to using “Xi Jinping Thought" to assist in projects that include the Chinese navy's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.

Money Talks

The revenue streams of Intel and NVIDIA substantially depend on sales in China—raising doubt about their motivation to come clean on on their involvement in China’s machinery of political repression. With some 13 million Uyghurs or other Turkic Muslims under severe repression—thanks at least in part to Intel’s advanced face-recognition technology—their insistence that they closely watch operations to “avoid complicity in human rights violations,” as  Intel put it a 2019 statement, rings hollow, at best.

Today it’s the Uyghurs. Tomorrow China’s advanced surveillance technology may be coming to a neighborhood near you: Beijing is using companies like Huawei to “spread its authoritarian model abroad and influence foreign countries,” senators Marco Rubio, (R-Fla) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore), both members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned in an August 2019 letter to the State Department.

”Americans need to know that repressive regimes may use Chinese-made technology to gain access to sensitive data–or that Chinese intelligence may gain access to data, even if Americans never set foot in China,” they told the State Department. 

Maya Wang, senior China researcher at the non-governmental Human Rights Watchorganization, told SpyTalk that Beijing is pursuing “something unprecedented in human history,” and that research and reporting on the topic has “only scratched the surface of how far and how comprehensive controls will be.” 

“At this stage we stand a good chance of understanding what they’re doing and how to affect it,” she says, “but once they achieve domestic capability (in manufacturing sophisticated chips), we may never recover it.”

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Matt Brazil is the co-author (with Peter Mattis) ofChinese Communist Espionage, An Intelligence Primer (2019). He is a former employee of Intel Asia Security. His views do not represent those of Intel Corporation or any other institution.