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China’s Surveillance State Sucks Up Data. U.S. Tech is Key to Sorting It.

Daniel Nenni

Admin
Staff member
Intel and Nvidia chips power a supercomputing center that tracks people in a place where government suppresses minorities, raising questions about the tech industry’s responsibility.

URUMQI, China — At the end of a desolate road rimmed by prisons, deep within a complex bristling with cameras, American technology is powering one of the most invasive parts of China’s surveillance state.

The computers inside the complex, known as the Urumqi Cloud Computing Center, are among the world’s most powerful. They can watch more surveillance footage in a day than one 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 watch untold numbers of people in Xinjiang, a western region of China where Beijing has unleashed a campaign of surveillance and suppression in the name of combating terrorism.

Chips made by Intel and Nvidia, the American semiconductor companies, have powered the complex since it opened in 2016. By 2019, at a time when reports said that Beijing was using advanced technology to imprison and track Xinjiang’s mostly Muslim minorities, new U.S.-made chips helped the complex join the list of the world’s fastest supercomputers. Both Intel and Nvidia say they were unaware of what they called misuse of their technology.

Powerful American technology and its potential misuse cut to the heart of the decisions the Biden administration must face 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 implicated in national security or humans rights issues. A crucial early question for Mr. Biden will be whether to firm up, loosen or rethink those restrictions.

 
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