What Is Google’s Real Relationship With China?
Questions arise about the use of data analysis in China.
The OpenPower Foundation, led by Google and IBM executives, has the aim of “driving innovation.” It is registered in New Jersey as a community improvement foundation. IBM’s Michelle Rankin is the foundation’s current president, while Google’s Chris Johnson serves as director. One partner is a U.S. chip manufacturer, Xilinx, and a Chinese company called Semptian joined in 2015.
What are they working on? The team is creating advanced microprocessors that allow computers to more efficiently analyze extremely large amounts of data. According to a new report from The Intercept, Semptian allegedly uses these devices for censorship and internet surveillance of its citizens. The surveillance data is then given to security agencies in China, known for human rights abuses.
Semptian anonymous sources say the Chinese government is using the technology to monitor internet activities of more than 200 million people in China.
Are U.S. tech companies helping China spy on its citizens as claimed? OpenPower has brushed off the criticism by stating that it does not get involved in the business strategies of its members, which include many American universities. While an IBM spokesperson said the company never worked with Semptian, other sources say IBM has a research unit in China and has worked with Semptian on several collaborations.
What Is Semptian?
Publicly, Semptian is a “big data” analysis company, but the firm also has another company called iNext, which sells internet surveillance and censorship tools to governments around the world. Investigative reporters have shown that iNext has developed Aegis, a mass surveillance system that can store and analyze unlimited amounts of data. Claims are that the system can handle 3.75 million hours of high-definition video every minute.
In short, this means a government can see an individual’s connections to everyone. In China, Aegis is everywhere, integrated with the country’s phone and internet networks to secretly collect emails, text messages, phone calls, locations and web browsing histories. As communications pass across phone and internet networks, Aegis keys in on words and certain people to filter out information.
When news about these relationships broke last week, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee stated its alarm. Amnesty International is also weighing in by questioning the foundation’s adherence to international human rights standards.
Trump Wants To Investigate Google
On July 16 President Trump said the U.S. government would look into national-security concerns regarding Google’s ties to China, concerns raised by Facebook board member and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who claimed that instead of working with the U.S. military, Google is working with China.
Thiel stands out in Silicon Valley as its most prominent conservative and has suggested that Chinese intelligence agents have most likely infiltrated Google, but he did not offer evidence.
Google has emphatically denied working with the Chinese military but has also declined to comment on whether it works with the Chinese government. Google continues to say it is committed to working with the U.S. military, despite pulling a Pentagon contract because company employees did not like it. But Google is under increasing scrutiny and criticism by congressmen who say Google is working counter to American interests because it is ramping up business in China.
Trump encouraged Attorney General William Barr to delve into the matter, making the comments hours before tech giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple were to testify on Capitol Hill.
Google pulled its search engine from China nearly a decade ago, citing the country’s censorship practices as a reason but has always maintained a business presence in China. Like Facebook and other tech giants, Google hopes to one day profit from the massive market in China if it ever becomes open. More recently, Google opened an artificial intelligence (AI) lab in China to attract young Chinese tech talent, even though it has emphatically stated it will never allow use of any of its AI in military weapons.
Google maintains it has been very cautious about its business enterprises in China after the company took heat in October 2018 over plans to once again build a Chinese search engine, which Google says it has not committed to.