Smart Cities and Automated Racism: How IBM designed China’s Surveillance Regime
Nafeez Ahmed on how Western Companies have aided and adopted Huawei’s terrifying and ubiquitous authoritarian tech
As Western government agencies raise alarm bells about the surveillance dangers of Huawei’s technology exports, many have missed the bigger story: that major Western companies helped build China’s surveillance state – a model which is now being quietly exported back to the West under the guise of installing efficient and sustainable ‘smart cities’.
Huawei is already inside some of the most sensitive national security domains across the Western world.
So far, most stated concerns are about the risk of China spying on the West through technology provided by Huawei. But there is another concern – getting into bed with a company complicit in building the surveillance infrastructure for the largest detention camps since the Holocaust.
While Huawei is best known for its smart phones, the telecommunications giant played a major role in designing one of China’s first major “smart city” projects in the autonomous province of Xinjiang, in the remote oil town of Karamay.
The Internet of Things: the Politics of Control
Across the town, bus stations were equipped with electronic screens displaying travel information. In homes, ageing residents could push panic button to alert emergency services or relatives. If the social security system recorded an increase in unemployed people, officials would know right away – all thanks to Karamay’s smart city web of 2G, 3G and Wi-Fi networks.
China’s early smart city project in Karamay has since blossomed into a computerised police state in Xinjiang. Versions of Karamay have been expanded across Xinjiang to track some 2.5 million residents, targeting the province’s Uyghur Muslim minority.
Versions of Karamay have been expanded across Xinjiang to track some 2.5 million residents, targeting the province’s Uyghur Muslim minority.
Persons who are flagged for suspicious activities – such as praying – can be investigated by Chinese intelligence and detained in “re-education” camps. Currently, some one million ethnic Uyghur Muslims have been interned in what has been described by a UN human rights panel as “a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”
The seeds of China’s smart city paradigm were first planted by IBM in its “Smarter Planet” concept in 2009, when the company engaged with over 200 city mayors across China. The following year, IBM announced a 10-year smart city development strategy for China at a Beijing conference.
There are currently just over 1,000 smart city projects around the world. Yet about half of them are in China, making the country home to the world’s largest concentration of smart cities – and therefore the biggest and most intrusive surveillance architecture ever built by any single nation.
Among the company’s early smart city projects was the installation of its flagship Intelligent Operations Center (IOC) for Smarter Solutions in the city of Zhenjiang in 2012.
An IBM handbook published the same year describes the IOC as capable of combining vast quantities of information across “security agencies” and “other levels of government.” Sources include feeds from “weather, citizens, law enforcement, social welfare, video”. The handbook identifies the potential of Sentiment Analysis, which learns what citizens are saying about city services through social media.
IBM played a direct role in designing and transitioning Karamay into Xinjiang’s first smart city. This was part of a bigger plan to connect cities across Xinjiang. In the first half of 2014, 5,000 4G mobile stations were installed across Xinjiang’s 16 main cities and 63 counties. By the end of that year, a total of 12,000 4G base stations would be built.
Uyghur Muslims have been interned in what has been described by a UN human rights panel as “a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”
By 2016, as smart city infrastructure was expanded across Xinjiang, IBM began introducing “cognitive IoT” (Internet of Things) into Karamay. IBM’s technology was built around the Watson IoT platform, an artificial intelligence (AI) system that is extraordinarily well-suited for a wide range of surveillance applications.
How exactly the Watson platform was practically applied in Karamay is unclear. IBM declined to respond to questions for this article. But Karamay is home to many Uyghur “re-education” camps, whose inhabitants are often detained by police for wearing Muslim clothing or having long beards. These practices are automated by the city’s extensive surveillance networks – first established under IBM’s “public security” platform, they have evolved into Huawei’s “Safe City” program.
Huawei’s tremendous growth would have been impossible without support from IBM. As early as 2000, IBM signed an agreement with Huawei providing it with unprecedented access to its microelectronics division’s R&D facilities.
And according to a China Daily interview in 2016 with Huawei’s founding chief executive Ren Zhengfe, the Chinese telecoms giant pays IBM more than $100 million every year in management consultancy fees. Like IBM, Huawei did not respond to requests for comment.
Chinese telecoms giant pays IBM more than $100 million every year in management consultancy fees.
Over the last decade, Huawei has established dozens of Safe City programs across China in cities including Shanghai, Jiangsu, Guangdong and beyond. In May 2018, Huawei continued its work in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, with a new partnership with the Public Security Bureau, establishing an “intelligence security industry” innovation lab.
Among the technologies now being applied in Xinjiang is advanced facial recognition designed to search exclusively for Uyghurs based on their appearance, potentially ushering in what the New York Times describes as “a new era of automated racism”. Huawei did not respond to questions about whether its work in Urumqi supports the emergence of such technologies.
IBM’s ongoing murky relationship with Huawei raises questions about its complicity in these processes. Yet the company has not faced sanction from the US government.
Meanwhile, Huawei’s official literature on the “Safe City” program claims to have exported the model to over 230 cities around the world on every continent.
There are currently just over 1,000 smart city projects around the world. Yet about half of them are in China
This includes countries with a history of authoritarianism and internal violence, including Pakistan, Laos, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia.
But while the US and UK governments are scrambling to limit Huawei’s access, Huawei is already inside some of the most sensitive national security domains across the Western world.
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In 2017, Huawei signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Frequentis, an Austrian technology firm specializing in the supply of communications systems for government agencies that provide public safety services like air traffic management and emergency services. The agreement gave Huawei input into Frequentis’ smart safety technology solutions. Yet Frequentis provides technology to over 140 countries including the U.S., UK and across Europe. Its customers include the UK’s Ministry of Defense, London’s Metropolitan Police, NASA and the US Navy.
The MoD did not respond to request for comment on the risks of depending on Huawei technology supplied through Frequentis.
The agreement raises the question of how the company which built much of China’s most intrusive surveillance infrastructure is already supplying some of the West’s most sensitive agencies through the backdoor.
But China is just the beginning. In coming years, the smart city model pioneered by the likes of Huawei with support from IBM is set to become the dominant paradigm of urban government.
By 2025, the global smart city market will be worth $2.5 trillion dollars. Dominated by Chinese companies like Huawei, it is a market which no serious Western technology firm and few governments want to be excluded from.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is an award-winning investigative journalist and editor of the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform INSURGE intelligence. He is ‘system shift’ columnist at VICE and has previously been published in The Times, Sunday Times, Independent, Guardian, The Atlantic among other places. He is featured in the Evening Standard’s list of most influential Londoners. @nafeezahmed
The original version of this piece was published in Coda’s Authoritarian Tech section