Who Is Assisting China in Its Technology Push?

March 20, 2019

I read “U.S. Firms Are Helping Build China’s Orwellian State.” The write up is interesting because it identifies companies which allegedly provide technology to the Middle Kingdom. The article also uses an interesting phrase; that is, “tech partnerships.” Please, read the original article for the names of the US companies allegedly cooperating with China.

I want to tell a story.

Several years ago, my team was asked to prepare a report for a major US university. Our task was to try and answer what I thought was a simple question when I accepted the engagement, “Why isn’t this university’s computer science program ranked in the top ten in the US?”

The answer, my team and I learned, had zero to do with faculty, courses, or the intelligence of students. The primary reason was that the university’s graduates were returning to their “home countries.” These included China, Russia, and India, among others. In one advanced course, there was no US born, US educated student.

We documented that for over a seven year period, when the undergraduate, the graduate students, and post doctoral students completed their work, they had little incentive to start up companies in proximity to the university, donate to the school’s fund raising, and provide the rah rah that happy graduates often do. To see the rah rah in action, may I suggest you visit a “get together” of graduates near Stanford or an eatery in Boston or on NCAA elimination week end in Las Vegas.

How could my client fix this problem? We were not able to offer a quick fix or even an easy fix. The university had institutionalized revenue from non US student and was, when we did the research, dependent on non US students. These students were very, very capable and they came to the US to learn, form friendships, and sharpen their business and technical “soft” skills. These, I assume, were skills put to use to reach out to firms where a “soft” contact could be easily initiated and brought to fruition.

threads fixed

Follow the threads and the money.

China has been a country eager to learn in and from the US. The identification of some US firms which work with China should not be a surprise.

However, I would suggest that Foreign Policy or another investigative entity consider a slightly different approach to the topic of China’s technical capabilities. Let me offer one example. Consider this question:

What Israeli companies provide technology to China and other countries which may have some antipathy to the US?

This line of inquiry might lead to some interesting items of information; for example, a major US company which meets on a regular basis with a counterpart with what I would characterize as “close links” to the Chinese government. One colloquial way to describe the situation is like a conduit. Digging in  this field of inquiry, one can learn how the Israeli company “flows” US intelligence-related technology from the US and elsewhere through an intermediary so that certain surveillance systems in China can benefit directly from what looks like technology developed in Israel.

Net net: If one wants to understand how US technology moves from the US, the subject must be examined in terms of academic programs, admissions, policies, and connections as well as from the point of view of US company investments in technologies which received funding from Chinese sources routed through entities based in Israel. Looking at a couple of firms does not do the topic justice and indeed suggests a small scale operation.

Uighur monitoring is one thread to follow. But just one.

Stephen E Arnold, March 20, 2019

Amazon: A Variant of the Google Push Back Problem

June 19, 2018

Google sells online ads and tries hard to generate significant, sustainable revenue not dependent on its “pay to play” model. The Google has faced employee pushback from employees related to its work for the US government. Although the focus has been Project Maven, some employees are not supportive of the company’s interest in expanding its work for US government agencies.

The Google problem has now morphed and allegedly surfaced among Amazon shareholders. The objection is that Amazon is working hard to expand its revenue by providing services to government agencies. The focus is upon Rekognition, the company’s facial recognition system.

The source which alerted me to this “problem” is CNNMoney. I assume that some of the information in the write up is accurate, but in today’s digital media sphere, one never knows. Nevertheless, let me highlight a couple of the points in “Amazon Shareholders Call for Halt of Facial Recognition Sales to Police.”

I know from the feedback from the audience at my lectures in Prague is that Amazon is not recognized as a vendor of policeware. (“Policeware” is the term I use to describe technology packaged for use by law enforcement and intelligence professionals.) In fact, when I mentioned “policeware” in conjunction with Amazon’s Rekognition service, there was confusion on the faces of my audience.

In short, Amazon may be selling facial recognition technology in the US, but among the professionals in Prague, Amazon sells T shirts and electronic gizmos.

The CNN Tech / CNNMoney write up states:

In a letter delivered to CEO Jeff Bezos late Friday, the shareholders, many of whom are advocates of socially responsible investing, say they’re concerned about the privacy threat of government surveillance from the tool.

Amazon rolled out Rekognition in 2016. Now two years later, the push back is sufficiently “large” to catch the attention of the “real” journalists at CNN.

The write up points out:

The shareholders, which include the Social Equity Group and Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment, are joining groups such as the ACLU in efforts to stop the company from selling the service — pointing out the risks of mass surveillance.

Amazon’s technology, it seems based on the information in the write up, is suitable for mass surveillance.

I highlighted this statement attributed to University of District Columbia law professor Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, author of “The Rise of Big Data Policing”:

The implications of Amazon Rekognition and all new facial recognition technologies is nothing less than a rebalancing of power between citizens and the police. The ability to identify, track, and monitor everyone throughout the city is something that we read about in science fiction.


Perhaps the “real” journalists at CNN will explore this topic in the future articles.

I have some questions which the experts working with CNN may be able to answer:

  • If the Rekognition product became available in 2016, how many years of development did Amazon require before having a commercial service?
  • What other innovations related to Rekognition did Amazon fund and develop?
  • How does Rekognition’s capabilities relate to the video functions of some Amazon in home devices?
  • Who spearheads Amazon’s policeware activities?

Perhaps CNN will provide additional information? If not, there may be some experts who can tackle these questions. Amazon may have to direct its attention to curing its variant of the Google disease for push back and discontent.

Stephen E Arnold, June 19, 2018

Forbes Does a Semi Rah Rah for Amazon Rekognition

June 9, 2018

I ran through some of our findings about Amazon’s policeware capabilities. Most of the individuals who heard my lectures were surprised that an eCommerce vendor offered high value tools, products, and services directly useful for law enforcement and intelligence professionals.

Why the surprise?

I think there are a number of reasons. But based on conversations with those in my lectures, two categories of comments and questions capture the reaction to the US government documents I reviewed.

First, Europeans do not think about Amazon as anything other than a vendor of products and a service which allows relatively low cost backend services like storage.

Second, the idea that a generalist online eCommerce site and a consumerized cloud service could provide industrial strength tools to investigators, security, and intelligence professionals was a idea not previously considered.

I read what might be an early attempt by the US media to try and explain one small component in Amazon’s rather large policeware system. In “We Built A Powerful Amazon Facial Recognition Tool For Under $10,” a member of the magazine’s staff allegedly “built” a facial recognition system using Amazon’s Rekognition service.

I learned:

because Rekognition is open to all, Forbes decided to try out the service. Based on photos staff consensually provided, and with footage shot across our Jersey City and London offices, we discovered it took just a few hours, some loose change and a little technical knowledge to establish a super-accurate facial recognition operation.

Based on my experience with professionals who work in the field of “real” news and journalism, the Amazon system must be easy to use. Like lawyers, many journalists are more comfortable with words that technology. There are, of course, exceptions such as the Forbes’ journalist.

In order to present a balanced viewpoint, Forbes included a cautionary chunk of information from a third party; to wit:

“This [Rekognitioin] underscores how easily a government can deploy Amazon’s face recognition to conduct mass surveillance,” ACLU technology and civil liberties attorney Matt Cagle said of Forbes’ project. “Now it’s up to Amazon. Will it stop selling dangerous technology to the government? Or will it continue compromising customer privacy and endangering communities of color, protesters and immigrants, who are already under attack in the current political climate?”

What did Amazon contribute to the write up? It appears Amazon was okay with keeping its lips zipped.

I think it may take some time for the person familiar with Amazon as a source of baby diapers to embrace Amazon as a slightly more robust provider of certain interesting technology.

Our research has revealed that Amazon has other policeware services and features sitting on a shelf in a warehouse stuffed with dog food, cosmetics, and clothing. We offer a for fee briefing about Amazon’s policeware. Write benkent2020 at yahoo dot com for details.

Stephen E Arnold, June 11, 2018

Policeware Lights Up Venture World

May 8, 2018

Spy agencies have has recently begun taking on a different look, that of a Silicon Valley startup. That’s because some of the world’s most secretive organizations have started to publicly proclaim that they are investing in digital spying tools. The most recent example popped up in a Jerusalem Times story, “Start-Up Spies? Mossad Enters the World of Venture Capitalism.”

The story focuses on the Israeli spy agency, Mossad, publicly starting a VC fund.

“In June, the fund was made public for the first time and previous announcements have indicated that it would invest NIS 10 million per year in five companies following a similar model to the CIA in this arena.
“The CIA’s parallel outfit is called Q-Tel, which is defined as the ‘strategic investor for the US intelligence and defense communities that identifies and adapts cutting-edge technologies.’”

This combination of entities, spy agencies and tech companies, might seem like a dream combination on the surface, but it is highly flawed. As the New York Times pointed out, being investors is not exactly what an organization like the CIA or Mossad is known for. Perhaps they have bright people handing the money in these organizations, but we wouldn’t count on it.

Patrick Roland, May 8, 2018

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