Ignorance Is No Defense

As The AI Cold War Looms, Has Time Finally Been Called On China’s Spy Industry? by Zak Doffman

So, back to that national collection agency building in June. On this occasion, the focus is facial recognition to protect public spaces against terrorist attack. But it could just as easily be ‘lawful intercept’, cybersecurity, data warehousing, ITC infrastructure. The agency is running a process, an evaluation, against a specified requirement. After months of testing, a Chinese company makes the shortlist. It has shipped test servers inside the wire, onto the network. It has thrown engineering resource into the mix. It has committed months of investment.


When it looks like the contract is about to veer towards one of the non-Chinese options, the agency’s program manager takes the Western vendors to one side. “It doesn’t really matter what happens with the rest of the test,” he says, trying to be helpful. “The Chinese have said they won’t be beaten on price. They’ll pretty much give it away if they have to. You can’t compete.”


Within the surveillance industry, this is now commonplace in South East Asia, Africa, the Middle East, even parts of Europe. The SOP is broadly the same. Free trials and equipment. Unbeatable pricing. Seemingly unlimited numbers of Chinese engineers in matching polo shirts, flown across to support deployments. The numbers shouldn’t add up. Except they do. It isn’t meant to be commercial. It’s meant to be a national security strategy. And it has been immensely effective.


Hikvision is the world’s largest surveillance equipment manufacturer. Like ZTE, Dahua, Hytera, it has grown rapidly both at home and abroad. Huawei is much larger and more diverse than the others. Surveillance just one of its areas of focus. The usual arguments center on whether the companies are state-owned or state-controlled. That misses the point. Promoting the country’s national security is a duty across the board. Huawei is not state-owned, it insists that it’s not state-controlled. But it is a ‘national champion’, carrying obligations to support the government in return for public sector contracts, financing support, state protection.


The warnings against buying Huawei devices or deploying Hikvision or Dahua or ZTE or Hytera security equipment are certainly not new. But the latest twist in this long-running tale is AI. China has built itself an AI surveillance hothouse that is second to none. Staggering investment rounds. Access to seemingly endless state procurements of facial recognition, citizen monitoring, dystopian surveillance. The brute force oppression of the Uighur population in Xinjiang Province and the urban electronically enforced zero-tolerance policing in the major cities further east are testaments to organization and determination.

It's a brilliant strategy.

Author: Khürt Williams

A human who works in information security and enjoys photography, Formula 1 and craft ale.