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How U.S. Tech Companies Fueled China’s Surveillance State

By and  |  Sept. 8, 2022 9:00 AM PDT
Photo: Art by Shane Burke

As the U.S. government intensifies its efforts to decouple American technology from China’s sprawling surveillance state, a new report by the U.N.’s human rights agency demonstrates the urgency of that task. The U.N. found that China’s treatment of Turkic Muslims in the remote region of Xinjiang “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

The Chinese government’s chilling campaign to forcibly assimilate minorities in Xinjiang relies heavily on a sophisticated system of mass digital surveillance—one that was built, and continues to operate, thanks to contributions from Silicon Valley. U.S. companies have long sought to profit off China’s desire to monitor its citizens, and it is surprising how deep those connections go.

One illuminating example is Intel Corp., the chip giant whose ties to Chinese surveillance date back to 2010, when its venture capital arm stumbled on a small but promising startup that specialized in stringing together security cameras. Digital cameras were still relatively new, but the startup, NetPosa Technologies Ltd., had already shown promise by weaving together a network of 10,000 cameras in eastern Beijing that the government used to maintain security during the 2008 Summer Olympics. Intel Capital bought a 6% stake in NetPosa for a little over $4.5 million. Richard Hsu, Intel Capital’s managing director for China at the time, said the company approached the deal “from a computing perspective,” as an entry point into a nascent surveillance industry that would require huge numbers of advanced chips.

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