IBM and Google reportedly swap morals for cash in Chinese surveillance JV

IBM and Google executives should be bracing for impact as the comet of controversy heads directly towards their offices.

Reports have emerged, via the Intercept, suggesting two of the US’ most influential and powerful technology giants have indirectly been assisting the Chinese Government with its campaign of mass-surveillance and censorship. Both will try to distance themselves from the controversy, but this could have a significant impact on both firms.

The drama here is focused around a joint-venture, the OpenPower Foundation, founded in 2013 by Google and IBM, but features members such as Red Hat, Broadcom, Mellanox, Xilinx and Rackspace. The aim of the open-ecosystem organization is to facilitate and share advances in networking, server, data storage, and processing technology.

To date, the group has been little more than another relatively uninteresting NPO, serving a niche in the industry, though one initiative is causing the stir. The OpenPower Foundation has been working with Xilinx and Chinese firm Semptian to create a new breed of chips capable of enabling computers to process incredible amounts of data. This might not seem extraordinary, though the application is where the issue has been found.

On the surface, Semptian is a relatively ordinary Chinese semiconductor business, but when you look at its most profitable division, iNext, the story becomes a lot more sinister. iNext specialises in selling equipment to the Chinese Government to enable the mass-surveillance and censorship projects which have become so infamous.

It will come as little surprise a Chinese firm is aiding the Government with its nefarious objectives, but a link to IBM and Google, as well as a host of other US firms, will have some twitching with discomfort. We can imagine the only people who are pleased at this news are the politicians who are looking to get their faces on TV by theatrically condemning the whole saga.

Let’s start with what iNext actually does before moving onto the US firms involved in the controversy. iNext works with Chinese Government agencies by providing a product called Aegis. Aegis is an interception and analysis system which has been embedded into various phone and internet networks throughout the country. This is one of the products which enables the Chinese Government to have such a close eye on the activities of its citizens.

Documentation acquired by The Intercept outlines the proposition in more detail.

“Aegis is not only the standard interception system but also the powerful analysis system with early warning and timely action capabilities. Aegis can work with all kinds of networks and 3rd party systems, from recovering, analysing, exploring, warning, early warning, locating to capturing. Aegis provides LEA with an end to end solution described as Deep Insight, Early Warning and Timely Action.”

Although the majority of this statement is corporate fluff, it does provide some insight into the way in which the technology actually works. This is an incredibly powerful surveillance system, which is capable of locating individuals through application usernames, IP addresses or phone numbers, as well as accurately tracking the location of said individuals on a real-time basis.

Perhaps one of the most worrying aspect of this system is the ‘pre-crime’ element. Although the idea of predictive analytics in some societies has been met with controversy and considerable resistance, we suspect the Chinese Government does not have the same reservations.

iNext promises this feature can help prevent crime through the introduction of an early warning system. This raises all sorts of ethical questions, as while the data estimates might be accurate to five nines, can you arrest someone when they haven’t actually committed a crime. This is the sticky position Google and IBM might have found itself in.

OpenPower has said that it was not aware of the commercial applications of the projects it manages, while its charter prevents it from getting involved. The objective of the foundation is to facilitate the progress of technology, not to act as judge and jury for its application. It’s a nice little way to keep controversy at arm’s length; inaction and negligence is seen as an appropriate defence plea.

For IBM and Google, who are noted as founding members of the OpenPower Foundation, a stance of ignorance might be enough to satisfy institutions of innocence, but the court of public opinion could swing heavily the other direction. An indirect tie to such nefarious activities is enough for many to pass judgment.

When it comes to IBM, the pursuit of innocence becomes a little bit trickier. IBM is directly mentioned on the Semptian website, suggesting Big Blue has been working closely with the Chinese firm for some time, though the details of this relationship are unknown for the moment.

For any of the US firms which have been mentioned here, it is not a comfortable situation to be in. Although they might be able to plead ignorance, it is quite difficult to believe. These are monstrous multi-national billion-dollar corporations, with hordes of lawyers, some of whom will be tasked with making sure the technology is not being utilised in situations which would get the firm in trouble.

Of course, this is not the first time US technology firms have found themselves on the wrong side of right. There have been numerous protests from employees of the technology giants as to how the technology is being applied in the real-world. Google is a prime example.

In April 2018, Google employees revolted over an initiative the firm was participating in with the US Government. Known as Project Maven, Google’s AI technology was used to improve the accuracy of drone strikes. As you can imagine, the Googlers were not happy at the thought of helping the US Government blow people up. Project Dragonfly was another which brought internal uproar, this time the Googlers were helping to create a version of the Google news app for China which would filter out certain stories which the Government deemed undesirable.

Most of the internet giants will plead their case, suggesting their intentions are only to advance society, but there are numerous examples of contracts and initiatives which contradict this position.

Most developers or engineers, especially the ones who work for a Silicon Valley giant, work for the highest bidder, but there is a moral line few will cross. As we’ve seen before, employees are not happy to aide governments in the business of death, surveillance or censorship, and we suspect the same storyline will play out here.

Google and IBM should be preparing themselves for significant internal and external backlash.