Sat, Mar 24, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Xi Jinping’s unlimited term raises risks for Silicon Valley

US companies are quick to point to their values and adherence to US laws, but technology that can link camera images to police files to identify victims in an accident can do the same for faces in a protesting crowd

By Kent Harrington  /  Reuters

Illustration: Lance Liu

With the end of constitutional limits on his term in office, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) decision to opt for unlimited tenure should eliminate any doubt that Beijing will ease up on its use of high-tech tools to maintain political control.

That means it is time for the US technology industry to make some difficult decisions.

China is building a 21st-century surveillance state and, wittingly or not, Silicon Valley’s leaders are playing a part.

Their business rationale for pursuing opportunities in China has long been clear. The ethical issue facing them today — whether they should continue according to plan — is now anything but.

Technology industry leaders, of course, are not alone in being caught out by China’s intensifying shift toward authoritarianism.

For Washington, China’s increasingly protectionist trade policies and sweeping territorial claims — backed up by militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea — have dispelled the notion that Xi intends to settle into an assigned role in the Western world order, or even play by its rules.

Silicon Valley’s chief executives have invested heavily in China as a manufacturing site and a market.

They bet on an expectation that political risks would decline as reform reduced the state sector’s role, loosened regulations and made China’s market more like the US.

Admitting that is not likely to happen will call for new strategies and bottom-line forecasts that no chief executive is ever eager to make.

Technology leaders also have an even more fundamental dilemma: reconciling their companies’ role in China with its emerging high-tech surveillance state.

At more than US$190 billion, China’s published annual budget for internal security masks its actual outlays. Like the defense budget, the real number includes hidden spending.

The technology sector figures prominently, including whatever can be bought or stolen from Silicon Valley.

A prototype is already up and running in Xinjiang.

Bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, the frontier province is home to 10 million Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority whose sometimes violent push for autonomy has led Chinese authorities to govern with a repressive hand.

In Xinjiang, the security services are linking cameras, software and databases to watch thousands of citizens in real time.

Using facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence (AI), the network tracks residents who venture beyond their homes and workplaces — it might soon pull in behavioral data from smartphones, online bank accounts and other sources with the goal of predicting “terrorist acts.”

Chinese defense contractors are not the technology industry’s only players.

Alibaba Holdings, China’s e-commerce giant, is investing in AI, sensors and other technologies for the nation’s “smart cities” project.

With about 800 cities building or planning high-tech infrastructure to manage traffic, emergency services, mobile payments and other chores, it is a safe bet Alibaba is preparing an architecture to support whatever is developed in Xinjiang.

The company has even anticipated the security services’ wish list.

As part of its mobile payment system, Alibaba’s own online credit scoring app for its Chinese consumers is a relevant work-in-progress.

It goes beyond consumers’ personal financial data to vacuum up online activity in preparing its “objective assessment.”

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