Senator Questions Administration’s Efforts to Combat China's Surveillance Exports

Vasin Lee/Shutterstock

Sen. Ed Markey asked the State Department how its working to stop the spread of Chinese surveillance techniques.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., wants the State Department to clarify the administration’s plan to counter the spread of Chinese surveillance technology and techniques across other nations, according to a letter he penned to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week.

The senator’s request was prompted by a rise in reports that China is exporting its advanced mass surveillance models to foreign governments.

“It is clear that China is enabling authoritarianism even where foreign leaders are uninspired by the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party,” Markey wrote. “Beijing is actively exporting methods of control that any authoritarian can implement, eroding freedom in every recipient country and undermining an international order built on open societies.”

In the letter, Markey asked Pompeo to clearly define the State Department’s strategy and the specific tools it has employed to “push back” against the spread of Chinese surveillance practices. Markey also questions how the department is addressing the topic with foreign organizations and counterparts abroad. Further, he asks how the administration’s budget cuts to civil society organizations that promote human rights and other exchange programs in fiscal 2020 helps the U.S. address the challenge.

To address threats of authoritarianism, Markey cited a recent report from Human Rights Watch illustrating its learnings from reverse engineering a mobile application it says Chinese authorities use to oppress the Uighur population and other minorities in Xinjiang. Through its work, HRW identified some of the information that feeds into China’s surveillance systems.

“Among other functions, the system scored government officials on their performance in carrying out repressive orders from higher-ranking officials, serving as a tool to control government employees,” Markey said.

The lawmaker also references reports regarding China’s dissemination of surveillance practices and tech. He notes that Ecuador is one of eighteen countries deploying Chinese-made intelligent monitoring systems and facial recognition technology. More than 4,000 high-powered cameras send footage to 16 monitor centers to be reviewed by more than 3,000 employees and a domestic intelligence agency, which the senator said is known to attack its opponents.  

“China has provided not only technology but also the training necessary for Ecuadorian officials to use the system in a manner at odds with demovcratic values and internationally guaranteed rights to privacy and freedom of movement,” he wrote.

The senator also said last month Sri Lankan news sources reported China is providing high-tech surveillance equipment and trainers to help the government trace individuals of their choosing. He added that at a recent congressional hearing, a Rohingya activist expressed fear that China could export technology it’s using to oppress Uighur communities, outward to Burma.

“The spread of sophisticated and authoritarian mass surveillance within China in itself is problematic, but its export to other governments poses a worldwide threat of repression,” Markey wrote.

He asked the Secretary to provide a written response by June 26. An official from the senator’s office told Nextgov State has not yet responded to the request.