We’ve been covering more and more instances of global censorship here on the TorGuard blog, from censorship in Turkey that has blocked more than 240,000 websites—to censorship in Cuba where new regulations are forming that make internet control very easy for the Cuban government. And we’ve even covered China’s worsening internet policy state multiple times. But we haven’t covered exactly what it means for a country like the USA to help other countries improve their own surveillance models. A new company—the OpenPower Foundation—founded by Google and IBM—is looking to advance microprocessors so that computers can analyze mass amounts of data more quickly and efficiently. This company has partnered with none-other than the Chinese company Semptian.
Semptian is a Shenzhen-based company that uses devices to enhance the internet surveillance and censorship capabilities of the Chinese government. According to sources and documents, a company employee from Semptian claims that the company is helping to monitor the internet activity of 200 million people.
Senator Mark Warner, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the Intercept that he is alarmed by the collaboration between the companies. “It’s disturbing to see that China has successfully recruited Western companies and researchers to assist them in their information control efforts,” Warner said.
Now while Semptian itself markets itself in public relations as simply a “big data” analysis company and that it only works with internet providers and educational institutes, most of the company’s revenue comes through from a front company called iNext—which directly sells surveillance and censorship technology to the Chinese government.
There have been reporters who have even investigated Semptian to find that the company has developed mass surveillance systems under the guise of iNext. The company’s system is named Aegis, which is reportedly made to “store and analyze unlimited data”.
According to iNext’s company documents, Aegis can “provide a full view to the virtual world” which would therein allow government spies to see “the connections of everyone,” including “location information for everyone in the country.” The system can not only monitor mass information, but block it as well, and the worst part is how Aegis has been implemented.
Aegis has been placed directly within China’s phone and internet networks, which is how the government can collect email records, phone calls, text messages, cellphone locations, browsing histories, and tons of other metadata.
While the Chinese government would argue all of this is to prevent criminal activity, the powerful technology is being used to secure and fortify the centralization of power. Critics of the current president and whistle blowers are literally being collected and buried.
“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.
The data alone that Aegis handles is terrifying. Of the roughly 800 million people in China, Aegis could be monitoring 200 million people. The data required to monitor such a large amount of people would be incredibly vast, ranging from technological capabilities to handle thousands of terabits per second.
Joss Wright, a senior researcher at the University of Oxford’s internet institute thinks that the Aegis system could be the world’s most powerful surveillance network. “There can’t be many systems in the world with that kind of reach and access,” Wright said.
The surveillance network is not only powerful, but it’s also intelligent as well. It doesn’t just “suck up” information per se, but instead it filters out and receives information associated with people, words, or even phrases.
The Aegis system is also designed to be extremely user friendly as well, letting anyone who is using it search for a wide variety of identifiers to track individuals. Zhu Wenying even sent a video to the Intercept, showing how the technology works.
The video shows how easily the system can track movements and it almost looks like some sort of Google Map clone, except in this case, digital lives can be observed—whether through where an individual has traveled, or even what they have said. Everything is mapped and easily searchable.
Apparently, the Aegis system was designed to be sold—and the company actively markets it this way. According to Zhu, the Semptian employee, it can also be easily adapted to other countries for the cost of around $1.5 million to $2.5 million, with an increase in cost for the ability to monitor communications.
Semptian’s design of the Aegis system, as well as it’s collaboration with the Chinese government and development of censorship and surveillance tools through front companies is extremely concerning. However, it’s more frightening to wonder exactly why American companies like IBM have chosen to work with Semptian.
It’s true that collaborations between U.S and Chinese companies already exist, but this collaboration is unusual due to Semptian’s relation to the government itself. The company has even ben awarded “National High-Tech Enterprise status” meaning that it passed various reviews and audits performed by the Chinese state.
So, it’s easy to see that by collaborating with Semptian, and sharing technology, American companies are now making the Chinese surveillance state even more strong and proliferating the human rights issues that take place in the country every day. One might wonder why this is happening, but as always, it mostly comes down to money. American companies aren’t necessarily looking to improve the internet situation in China, they are just looking to make money. We’ve seen that proved when Apple agreed to remove apps from the iOS store in China due to government requests.
It’s easy to turn a blind eye to Aegis and the American company involvement and think it might not be a problem–but China’s internet censorship and surveillance model can easily become a global one. How long is it till Semptian tries to tell Aegis to the US government?