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U.S. Lawmakers Query Intel, Nvidia On Chips Used By China Against Uighurs

The chipmakers say they were unaware their products would be used for mass surveillance purposes by the Chinese government against Uighur Muslims — a group that has been allegedly subject to torture and abuse by the country, according to the U.S. State Department.

Intel and Nvidia are facing questions from two U.S. lawmakers about the sale of advanced chips to the Chinese government to allegedly surveil Uighur Muslims in the country’s Xinjiang region.

Reuters reported that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, sent letters to the two Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmakers about the matter Tuesday.

[Related: FireEye Hacked By Nation-State Group Seeking Government Info]

The letters inquired about whether Intel and Nvidia were aware their technologies would be used for mass surveillance and whether they had taken any measures to prevent their chips from being used for human rights abuses or to weaken U.S. national security.

Two weeks ago, The New York Times detailed the use of Intel and Nvidia chips in supercomputers run by the Chinese government to power mass surveillance against Uighurs — a group that has been allegedly subject to torture and abuse by China, according to the U.S. State Department, Reuters noted. Two supercomputers used in Xinjiang are among the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers, ranking Nos. 212 and 417 in the most recent list released in November.

In a statement to CRN, an Intel spokesperson reiterated points the company made in response to The New York Times article, which stated that Intel no longer sells advanced chips for supercomputers to Sugon, the supplier of China’s supercomputers used for surveillance. The company also stated that it was unaware when it sold chips to Sugon that they would be misused.

“Under our global human rights principles, Intel does not support or tolerate our products being used to violate human rights,” the Intel spokesperson said. “Where we become aware of a concern that Intel products are being used by a business partner in connection with abuses of human rights, we will restrict or cease business with the third party until and unless we have high confidence that Intel’s products are not being used to violate human rights.”

While Nvidia declined to comment to CRN, a company spokesperson told The New York Times in November that it had no indication China would use its chips “for any improper use.”

The Nvidia spokesperson also told the newspaper that Sugon “hasn’t been a significant Nvidia customer” since the company was cut off last year from selling advanced chips to Sugon and three affiliated Chinese firms, which were placed on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s so-called “entity list” for “acting contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” The action also impacted Intel and AMD, the latter of which has a joint venture with a Sugon-owned entity.

The New York Times noted in its article that “there is no evidence” the sale of Intel or Nvidia chips to Sugon, which happened prior to the Commerce Department’s entity-list action, violated any rules.

Eliot Eshelman, vice president of strategic accounts and HPC initiatives at Microway, a Plymouth, Mass.-based high-performance computing system builder that partners with Intel and Nvidia, said rules around technology exports to countries that could misuse the technology have been ill-defined to date, which is why he’s glad lawmakers are beginning to investigate the matter.

“I don‘t think the law has caught up with this,” he said. “It’s easy to say, ‘we’re not shipping missiles to China.’ It’s more difficult to say, ‘we’re not shipping a component that might be used to commit this kind of human rights violation.’”

Dominic Daninger, vice president of engineering at Nor-Tech, a Burnsville, Minn.-based HPC system builder that also partners with Intel and Nvidia, said the letters sent by Rubio (pictured above) and McGovern are laying the groundwork for the creation of rules for vendors selling technologies to foreign countries. He added that the United States is also contending with the ethics of surveillance technologies such as facial recognition, which has been banned in multiple cities.

“That’s one of those areas where there’s a lot of controversy about that and how it’s being used, even in the U.S., so it’s going to be interesting to see how this goes,” he said.

The documented abuses of Uighur people by China, according to Daninger, raises questions about whether other countries are paying enough attention to the issue. According to previous estimates by the United Nations, China has detained more than one million Muslims in camps in the Xinjiang region.

“From what I’ve seen, and there’s a lot of satellite photography, these people are not in a good situation,” Daninger said.

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