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Enabling China’s Mass Surveillance System
By John Glynn
In the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer, introduced the idea of the Panopticon, a disciplinary concept brought to life in the form of a central observation tower placed within a circle of prison cells. Each cell is flooded with light, which creates an environment in which prisoners are under constant watch. Even if no guard is on duty, a prisoner will always feel as if they are being watched. Bentham described it as “[a] new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.” The Panopticon is the optimal prison; it enables an unprecedented level of surveillance.
When we discuss the concept of surveillance, one country automatically springs to mind.
China’s transition from what Rebecca MacKinnon calls a “networked authoritarianism” to what is now a form of networked totalitarianism is almost complete. The difference is not merely semantic. As John Naughton writes, “An authoritarian regime is relatively limited in its objectives: there may be elections, but they are generally carefully managed; individual freedoms are subordinate to the state; there is no constitutional accountability and no rule of law in any meaningful sense.”
In contrast, according to Naughton, totalitarianism “prohibits opposition parties, restricts opposition to the state and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life.” The historian Robert Conquest put it best when he argued that a totalitarian state recognizes no limits to its authority. Proponents of totalitarianism have no respect for privacy. In a totalitarian state, privacy is but an illusion.
By implementing a fully functional social credit system replete with an inescapable network of surveillance cameras keyed to facial recognition, China has morphed into a technocratic totalitarian state. For many readers, such reports are nothing new. However, what if I was to tell you that an American organization is currently helping China’s authoritarian government to conduct mass surveillance against its citizens?
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Peter Thiel criticized Google for working with Chinese authorities. The billionaire venture capitalist who helped found PayPal criticized the company’s decision to forego work with the Pentagon on Project Maven, an initiative that uses AI to improve the analysis of drone footage. Google decided not to renew its contract after its employees protested the project, instead opting to focusing on fostering relations with the Chinese.
Now, according to The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher, “The OpenPower Foundation — a nonprofit led by Google and IBM executives with the aim of trying to “drive innovation” — has set up a collaboration between IBM, Chinese company Semptian, and U.S. chip manufacturer Xilinx.”
Why? To develop a breed of microprocessors that enable computers to analyze vast amounts of data more efficiently.
What will this technology be used for? Semptian, a company based in the city of Shenzhen, is using the devices to enhance the capabilities of internet surveillance and censorship technology. Journalist Jeremy Scahill warns us that this “technology is being used to covertly monitor the internet activity of 200 million people.” Of course, it is. After all, Semptian works with IBM and Google through a collaborative cloud platform called SuperVessel, which is maintained by an American led research unit in China.
In an interview with The Intercept, Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had this to say: “It’s disturbing to see that China has successfully recruited Western companies and researchers to assist them in their information control efforts.”
The idea that two major American companies now pledge allegiance to Communist China is as baffling as it is worrying. Google and IBM have a professional responsibility to conduct human rights due diligence throughout their operations and supply chains, including through partnerships and collaborations. Obviously, this is no longer the case.
An employee of the aforementioned Semptian recently released documents showing that the company has developed a mass surveillance system named Aegis, which has the capacity to “store and analyze unlimited data.” By providing the Chinese with cutting-edge technology, Google and IBM are actively supporting one of the most oppressive regimes of the 21st century.
Aegis allows government officials to see “the connections of everyone,” including “location information for everyone in the country.” Of course, this invasion of privacy doesn’t just affect the lives of Chinese citizens. Today, there are more than 70,000 Americans currently living in China. One assumes that their online activities are being monitored very closely.
Peter Thiel calls the collaboration between Google, IBM and China “treasonous.” Only a fool would argue with the entrepreneur. By sleeping with the enemy, Google and IBM executives are helping one of the most repressive countries in the world operate its very own Panopticon, replete with 24 hour surveillance and a complete disregard for an individual’s right to privacy.