This article was published on October 8, 2019

US puts Chinese surveillance tech firms on economic blacklist over Uyghur abuse

US puts Chinese surveillance tech firms on economic blacklist over Uyghur abuse
Ravie Lakshmanan
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Ravie Lakshmanan

The US government has blacklisted 28 Chinese organizations for their alleged involvement in perpetrating systematic abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority residing in the country’s Xinjiang province.

To that effect, eight technology companies have been added to the Entity List — counting Dahua Technology, Hikvision, IFLYTEK, Megvii Technology, Sense Time, Xiamen Meiya Pico Information Co. Ltd., Yitu Technologies, and Yixin Science and Technology Co. Ltd. — effectively prohibiting them from trading with US companies.

However, the Commerce Department did not state specifically the actions that led to the companies getting added to the Entity List, beyond that their activities are “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the US.”

Hikvision and Dahua Technology, in particular, are two of the world’s largest manufacturers and suppliers of video surveillance technologies. Both the companies are partially controlled by the Chinese government, and have R&D centers across different cities, including Montreal and London.

“Specifically, these entities have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region],” the US Commerce Department filing noted.

It’s worth pointing out that the Commerce Department had previously added Huawei and more than 100 affiliates to the Entity List.

A subject of heightened surveillance

China has long considered XUAR a breeding ground for “separatists, terrorists and religious extremists,” with the residents of the region — ethnically Turkic Muslims — the subject of persecution and invasive surveillance via ubiquitous cameras, artificial intelligence and advanced facial recognition.

Aside from snooping on the community through robotic “Dove” drones, their WeChat conversations have been monitored for suspicious activity, and they have had their DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, voice samples, and blood types collected.

The pervasive online snooping of ethnic minorities has also extended beyond its borders via targeted spear phishing campaigns and watering hole attacks using zero-day exploits on Android and iOS to install spyware.

As of last year, more than two million Uyghurs and Muslim minorities have been thrown into detention camps, made to memorize Communist Party propaganda, and renounce Islam, prompting over 20 countries to call on China to halt its mass detention efforts.

But the nation state has maintained that the Uyghurs are attending what it calls “vocational training centers” that help them get jobs and integrate better into the society.

The unprecedented arsenal of digital spying techniques enabled by the companies has thus made China a pioneer in applying AI-powered technology to cast a constant gaze over its citizens, ushering in a new era of automated discrimination and racial profiling at the same time building a sophisticated repression machine.

With China’s booming AI industry relying heavily on chips from foreign companies, the move — while meant to cut off their supply — could have the opposite effect of doubling down on their indigenous semiconductor aspirations, thus accelerating the country’s tech sovereignty.

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