URUMQI, China – At the end of a deserted street lined with prisons, deep in a complex full of cameras, American technology powers one of the most invasive parts of the Chinese surveillance state.
The computers in the complex, known as the Urumqi Cloud Computing Center, are among the most powerful in the world. You can view more surveillance footage in one day than one person in a year. They look for faces and patterns of human behavior. They chase cars. They monitor phones.
The Chinese government uses these computers to monitor countless people in Xinjiang, a western region of China where Beijing has launched a campaign of surveillance and repression in the name of counter-terrorism.
Chips from Intel and Nvidia, the American semiconductor company, have powered the complex since it opened in 2016. Until 2019, at a time when Beijing reportedly deployed advanced technology to imprison and track Xinjiang's mostly Muslim minorities made in the U.S. chips helped the complex join the list of the world's fastest supercomputers. Both Intel and Nvidia said they didn't know what they called abuse of their technology.
Powerful American technology and its potential abuse are at the heart of the decisions the Biden government must face when it comes to the country's increasingly bitter relationship with China. The Trump administration last year banned the sale of advanced semiconductors and other technologies to Chinese companies involved in national security or human rights issues. A crucial early question for Mr. Biden will be whether these restrictions should be tightened, relaxed or reconsidered.
Some tech industry figures argue that the ban went too far, cutting off valuable sales of American products with many innocuous uses, and causing China to make its own advanced semiconductors. In fact, China is spending billions of dollars developing high-end chips.
In contrast, critics of the use of American technology in repressive systems say buyers are exploiting workarounds and that industry and officials should keep a closer eye on sales and usage.
Companies often point out that they have little control over where their products end up. For example, the chips in the Urumqi complex 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 also makes computers for ordinary businesses.
That argument is no longer good enough, said Jason Matheny, founding director of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University and a former US intelligence official.
"Government and industry need to be more thoughtful now that technology is so advanced that you can potentially do real-time monitoring with a single supercomputer for potentially millions of people," he said.
There's no evidence that selling Nvidia or Intel chips before the Trump order broke any law. Intel said it no longer sells supercomputer semiconductors to Sugon. Nevertheless, both continue to sell chips to the Chinese company.
The existence and use of US chips by the Urumqi complex is no secret, and there has been no shortage of evidence that Beijing used it for surveillance in Xinjiang. Since 2015, when the complex began development, the state media and Sugon had boasted of their connections with the police.
In five-year-old marketing materials distributed in China, Nvidia promoted the capabilities of the Urumqi complex, boasting that its "high-capacity video surveillance application" won customer satisfaction.
Nvidia said the materials refer to older versions of its products and that video surveillance will then be a normal part of the "smart cities" discussion, an attempt in China to use technology to solve urban problems such as pollution, traffic and crime. A spokesman for Nvidia said the company had no reason to believe that its products were being used "for an improper purpose."
The spokesman added that Sugon was "not a major Nvidia customer" since last year's ban. He also said that Nvidia Sugon has not provided technical assistance since then.
A spokesman for Intel, which still sells lower-end Sugon chips, said it would limit or stop doing business with customers who were found to have used its products to violate human rights.
The promotion of Intel's China business appears to have had an impact on the company. One business unit issued ethical guidelines for the A.I. Applications, according to three people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because Intel did not publish the guidelines.
Sugon said in a statement that the complex was originally intended to track license plates and manage other smart city tasks, but its systems were found to be ineffective and were switched to other uses. As recently as September, official Chinese government media designated the complex as a center for processing videos and images for city administration.
Advances in technology have given authorities around the world considerable power to watch and sort people. In China, leading companies have taken 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 minorities. Chinese companies and authorities claim their systems may detect religious extremism or opposition to the Communist Party.
The Urumqi Cloud Computing Center – sometimes referred to as the Xinjiang Supercomputing Center – rose to # 221 on the list of the world's fastest computers in 2018. In November 2019, new chips helped bring his computer to number 135.
Two data centers operated by Chinese security forces are located next door, which experts say is a way of reducing the delay time. There are also six prisons and re-education centers nearby.
When a New York Times reporter tried to visit the center in 2019, plainclothes police followed him. A security guard turned him away.
The official Chinese media and Sugon's earlier statements show the complex as a surveillance center, among other things. In August 2017, local officials said the center could support a Chinese police oversight project called Sharp Eyes and search 100 million photos in a second. According to the company, the computers could connect to 10,000 video feeds and analyze 1,000 at the same time using artificial intelligence by 2018.
“Using cloud computing, big data, deep learning, and other technologies, the intelligent video analytics engine can integrate police data and applications from video footage, Wi-Fi hotspots, checkpoint information, and facial recognition analytics to support the operation of various departments” within of the Chinese police, Sugon said in a 2018 article posted on an official social media account.
During a visit by local Communist Party leaders to the complex earlier this year, she wrote on her website that the computers "improved thinking from tracking to tracking to predictive policing."
In Xinjiang, predictive policing is often used as an acronym for preventive arrests targeting conduct deemed disloyal or threatening to the party. According to Uighur statements and official Chinese policy documents, this could be a sign of Muslim piety, ties to families who live overseas, or who have two or no phone.
Technology helps sort out huge amounts of data that humans can't process, said Jack Poulson, former Google engineer and founder of Tech Inquiry.
"As something approaches a surveillance state, your main limitation is your ability to identify events of interest in your feeds," he said. "The way you scale your surveillance is through machine learning and large-scale A.I."
The Urumqi Complex was developed before reports of abuse were widespread in Xinjiang. Until 2019, governments around the world protested against China's behavior in Xinjiang. This year, the Sugon computer with Intel Xeon Gold 5118 processors and advanced Nvidia Tesla V100 chips for artificial intelligence appeared in the international supercomputing rankings.
It's not clear how, or if, Sugon gets chips strong enough to keep the Urumqi complex on that list. However, lesser technology typically used to perform harmless tasks can also be used for surveillance and suppression. Customers can also use resellers in other countries or chips from American companies overseas.
Last year, police in two counties in Xinjiang, Yanqi and Qitai, bought surveillance systems that were powered by lower-level Intel chips according to government procurement documents. The Kizilsu Autonomous Prefecture Public Security Bureau bought a computing platform in April that used servers with less powerful Intel chips, despite being blacklisted by the Trump administration last year for its involvement in surveillance was.
China's reliance on American chips has helped the world roll back for the time being, said Maya Wang, a Chinese researcher with Human Rights Watch.
"I fear that in a few years, Chinese companies and governments will find their own way to develop chips and these skills," Ms. Wang said. "Then there will be no way to stop these abuses."
Paul Mozur reported from Urumqi, China, and Don Clark from San Francisco.