An American organization founded by tech giants Google and IBM is working with a company that is helping China’s authoritarian government conduct mass surveillance against its citizens, The Intercept can reveal.
The OpenPower Foundation — a nonprofit led by Google and IBM executives with the aim of trying to “drive innovation” — has set up a collaboration between IBM, Chinese company Semptian, and U.S. chip manufacturer Xilinx. Together, they have worked to advance a breed of microprocessors that enable computers to analyze vast amounts of data more efficiently.
Shenzhen-based Semptian is using the devices to enhance the capabilities of internet surveillance and censorship technology it provides to human rights-abusing security agencies in China, according to sources and documents. A company employee said that its technology is being used to covertly monitor the internet activity of 200 million people.
Semptian, Google, and Xilinx did not respond to requests for comment. The OpenPower Foundation said in a statement that it “does not become involved, or seek to be informed, about the individual business strategies, goals or activities of its members,” due to antitrust and competition laws. An IBM spokesperson said that his company “has not worked with Semptian on joint technology development,” but declined to answer further questions. A source familiar with Semptian’s operations said that Semptian had worked with IBM through a collaborative cloud platform called SuperVessel, which is maintained by an IBM research unit in China.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Intercept that he was alarmed by the revelations. “It’s disturbing to see that China has successfully recruited Western companies and researchers to assist them in their information control efforts,” Warner said.
Anna Bacciarelli, a researcher at Amnesty International, said that the OpenPower Foundation’s decision to work with Semptian raises questions about its adherence to international human rights standards. “All companies have a responsibility to conduct human rights due diligence throughout their operations and supply chains,” Bacciarelli said, “including through partnerships and collaborations.”
Semptian presents itself publicly as a “big data” analysis company that works with internet providers and educational institutes. However, a substantial portion of the Chinese firm’s business is in fact generated through a front company named iNext, which sells the internet surveillance and censorship tools to governments.
iNext operates out of the same offices in China as Semptian, with both companies on the eighth floor of a tower in Shenzhen’s busy Nanshan District. Semptian and iNext also share the same 200 employees and the same founder, Chen Longsen.
After receiving tips from confidential sources about Semptian’s role in mass surveillance, a reporter contacted the company using an assumed name and posing as a potential customer. In response, a Semptian employee sent documents showing that the company — under the guise of iNext — has developed a mass surveillance system named Aegis, which it says can “store and analyze unlimited data.”
Aegis can provide “a full view to the virtual world,” the company claims in the documents, allowing government spies to see “the connections of everyone,” including “location information for everyone in the country.”
The system can also “block certain information [on the] internet from being visited,” censoring content that the government does not want citizens to see, the documents show.
Chinese state security agencies are likely using the technology to target human rights activists.
Aegis equipment has been placed within China’s phone and internet networks, enabling the country’s government to secretly collect people’s email records, phone calls, text messages, cellphone locations, and web browsing histories, according to two sources familiar with Semptian’s work.
Chinese state security agencies are likely using the technology to target human rights activists, pro-democracy advocates, and critics of President Xi Jinping’s regime, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals.
In emails, a Semptian representative stated that the company’s Aegis mass surveillance system was processing huge amounts of personal data across China.
“Aegis is unlimited, we are dealing with thousands Tbps [terabits per second] in China more than 200 million population,” Zhu Wenying, a Semptian employee, wrote in an April message.
There are an estimated 800 million internet users in China, meaning that if Zhu’s figure is accurate, Semptian’s technology is monitoring a quarter of the country’s total online population. The volume of data the company claims its systems are handling — thousands of terabits per second — is staggering: An internet connection that is 1,000 terabits per second could transfer 3.75 million hours of high-definition video every minute.
“There can’t be many systems in the world with that kind of reach and access,” said Joss Wright, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute. It is possible that Semptian inflated its figures, Wright said. However, he added, a system with the capacity to tap into such large quantities of data is technologically feasible. “There are questions about how much processing [of people’s data] goes on,” Wright said, “but by any meaningful definition, this is a vast surveillance effort.”
The two sources familiar with Semptian’s work in China said that the company’s equipment does not vacuum up and store millions of people’s data on a random basis. Instead, the sources said, the equipment has visibility into communications as they pass across phone and internet networks, and it can filter out information associated with particular words, phrases, or people.
In response to a request for a video containing further details about how Aegis works, Zhu agreed to send one, provided that the undercover reporter signed a nondisclosure agreement. The Intercept is publishing a short excerpt of the 16-minute video because of the overwhelming public importance of its content, which shows how millions of people in China are subject to government surveillance. The Intercept removed information that could infringe on individual privacy.