HONG KONG — Amazon, Apple, Google, and other technology giants are distributing physical goods and apps from Chinese companies that the US government has accused of abetting human rights violations, BuzzFeed News has found.
The goods and apps come from three companies — Hikvision, Dahua Technology, and iFlytek — which the US Commerce Department recently placed on an export blacklist for their role in aiding in the surveillance and detention of more than a million Uighur Muslims and other Muslim ethnic minorities in China’s northwest Xinjiang region. The blacklist designation prevents US companies from exporting commodities or software to those companies. But it does not stop Amazon and eBay from selling their products in their own online marketplaces, or Google and Apple from distributing their apps to US consumers.
BuzzFeed News’ findings underscore, however, the extent to which the technology industry’s leading companies continue to work with entities that supply surveillance software and cameras to watch over one of the world’s most persecuted ethnic minorities. BuzzFeed News counted hundreds of products from Dahua and Hikvision, which manufacture security system equipment, and iFlytek, a voice recognition and translation company, on Amazon, eBay, and Overstock. Apple and Google also collectively distributed more than 100 apps from the three Chinese companies on the Apple App Store and Google Play, the main marketplace for Android software.
“We know that these companies are amongst the suppliers of the surveillance regime in Xinjiang and the whole spectrum of incarceration,” said James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, of Hikvision, Dahua, and iFlytek. “It points out how difficult it is to try to pressure China on these issues.”
The tech giants' distribution of apps and products from three blacklisted entities comes at a time of heightened scrutiny over how much Western companies are willing to appease China in order to maintain access to its market of 1.4 billion people. Ongoing protests in Hong Kong are a new source of tension for American companies including Google and Apple, which critics have slammed for censoring apps that are perceived to be challenging the Chinese government.
“It points out how difficult it is to try to pressure China on these issues.”
Google removed a mobile game from its app store that allowed users to role-play as pro-democracy Hong Kong protestors last month, citing a policy around “sensitive events.” Meanwhile, Apple pulled HKmap.live, a program used to track Hong Kong protest hot spots along with police presence and tear gas deployment from its app store in October.
Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a letter to employees that HKmap.live was taken down because the company had received “credible evidence” that the app was “being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence.” Chinese state media had previously accused Apple of assisting protesters by offering HKmap.live in the App Store, but many in Hong Kong scoffed at the explanation, noting that the app only shows crowdsourced information and is used largely by residents looking to avoid dangerous areas.
Pulling HKmap.live was part of a wider trend. In the second half of 2018, Apple removed 517 apps at China’s request, according to the company’s transparency report. Out of 56 requests, it only challenged or rejected two of those. In that same period, Google did not highlight any app takedowns on behalf of Chinese government requests in its own report, though other content, including fake Google+ profiles of Chinese President Xi Jinping, was removed.
Apple also recently removed the Taiwan flag emoji for iOS users in Hong Kong, and BuzzFeed News recently revealed that earlier this year Apple warned some creators of Apple TV+ programming not to portray China in a negative light.
The apps from Hikvision, Dahua, or iFlytek, which mostly relate to the operation of camera security equipment or speech recognition and translation, do not appear to violate the rules of Google or Apple’s app stores. The companies that built the apps, however, were placed on the designation list by the US Commerce Department because they are believed to be involved with “activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”
“Specifically, these entities have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the [Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region],” read the Commerce Department’s decision last month. The blacklist extended to 28 organizations and companies including SenseTime, Megvii, and Yitu, three of China’s most valuable facial-recognition companies.
Experts and US officials estimate that at least a million Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities are currently detained in internment camps, while escapees have reported being subjected to torture, abuse, and political indoctrination. Those who have managed to avoid the camps are heavily surveilled by technology and equipment built, in part, by Hikvision, Dahua, and iFlytek.
Together, Hikvision and Dahua have more than $1 billion worth of Chinese government-backed contracts in Xinjiang, a trade publication reported last year.
Representatives for Dahua, Hikvision, and iFlytek did not respond to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News. A spokesperson for the Commerce Department pointed BuzzFeed News to publicly available information on its entity list, but declined to comment on specific companies.
“Big tech companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon have a responsibility to moderate their marketplaces and app stores, and if it were me, I certainly wouldn’t carry products from companies that are actively engaged in violating human rights,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a watchdog group that tracks public and private surveillance. “That’s a decision that these companies should make regardless of any government pressure.”
An Apple spokesperson said that the company takes “great care to curate the App Store,” adding that “all apps on the App Store must comply with local laws and cannot put individuals or groups in harm's way.”
While Apple does not believe it’s in violation of US law, the company was aware that companies blacklisted by the Commerce Department are not allowed to purchase or download exclusive software, toolkits, or frameworks. The spokesperson noted that apps from Hikvision, Dahua, and iFlytek sell their products around the world and that many of those apps are used by their customers to manage hardware like security cameras in typical situations.
Google acknowledged receiving BuzzFeed News’ questions but did not provide comment.
Hikvision, which bills itself as “the world's largest video surveillance manufacturer,” has more than 30 apps available in Apple’s App Store and 15 in Google Play, BuzzFeed News found. As a vendor to police in Xinjiang, the company counts a Chinese state-owned enterprise as its largest shareholder.
Some of Hikvision’s apps, which are all free to download, allow people to track various home or business security systems through their phones. Data from App Annie, which tracks mobile app downloads and usage, shows that Hikvision’s apps have few ratings or reviews on Apple’s App Store; they appear to have higher downloads and engagement on Google Play.
Hik-Connect, an app designed to work with Hikvision cameras, has more than 31,000 cumulative ratings since its February 2016 release, with an average rating of 4.2 stars. “The latest update has cause [sic] many issues with viewing my cameras on playback via Hik-Connect,” one user wrote in October, giving it one star.
Dahua similarly had more than two dozen free-to-download apps through Apple’s App Store and at least 20 through Google’s. These apps offer options to control different surveillance systems, including one through Apple and two through Google Play that appear to be made for US home-security company ADT.
The ADT-linked apps use the US company’s blue logo, and reviewers of the Apple-distributed version discussed the use of ADT support when installing. One customer of the app, called “VideoView Mobile,” wrote that it was “beyond rubbish” despite an ADT salesman’s assistance.
Asked about the mobile software, an ADT spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s relationship with Dahua and referred BuzzFeed News to the Security Industry Association, a security company trade group.
“SIA strongly believes all technology products must only be used for purposes that are lawful, ethical and non-discriminatory, and we believe security technology should be a catalyst for good in the world,” a spokesperson for the group said in a statement. SIA declined to comment on ADT’s relationship with Dahua.
IFlytek, which according to a 2017 Human Rights Watch report collected samples of people’s speech to allow China’s Ministry of Public Security to identify people through phone conversations, has four apps on the Apple App Store and Google Play. The company’s own website notes that it has supplied its technology to police forces in Xinjiang. Recently it was found to be censoring politically sensitive terms such as “Tiananmen” and “independence” from its systems.
On the Apple App Store, iFlytek Voice Input, an app with Chinese language instructions, has an average rating of 4.7 stars and more than 2,700 votes. Some users rave about the accuracy of its speech recognition and its functional Chinese Pinyin keyboard.
“It’s just really difficult to tell ... where the consumer application ends and where the military or surveillance application starts.”
It seems to be doing well on the App Store, according to App Annie. Since September, Apple has featured it four times on the store’s homepage.
Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said it was the responsibility of companies like Apple and Google to ensure that they are not further contributing to human rights abuses. She added that companies should also have due diligence policies that examine how consumer apps are collecting data.
“It’s just really difficult to tell with these companies that have close ties to the Chinese government where the consumer application ends and where the military or surveillance application starts,” she said.
For Sale: Video Recorder With Face Detection
Apps aren’t the only thing tech giants are distributing for companies on the Commerce Department’s designation list. BuzzFeed News found that some of the US’s largest online marketplaces — Amazon, eBay, and Overstock — have allowed third-party sellers to advertise and sell products from Hikvision, Dahua, and iFlytek.
On Amazon, there are more than 700 products from Dahua or Dahua Technology ranging from security cameras to camera mounts to wires. While most, if not all, of the products are sold by third-party vendors, many are stored and shipped by Amazon.
Some devices are also sponsored, meaning that sellers are spending money with Amazon to promote them in search results to consumers. One of those sponsored posts offered a $175 eight-channel digital recorder with face detection that could be shipped to San Francisco in two days for Amazon Prime members. Another, from DH Global, whose online storefront claims to be “the sole authorized seller of authentic Dahua products (other than Amazon) on the Amazon platform,” presented a fisheye surveillance camera with free shipping for $185.
A search for Hikvision on Amazon’s marketplace yielded more than 500 product results with some sponsored posts for camera systems and accessories. BuzzFeed News also found what appears to be official Hikvision and Dahua storefronts on Amazon, though there were no products or reviews listed for either. “Just launched,” read both pages.
There are six different Amazon listings for language translators made by iFlytek offering real-time translation between Chinese dialects and other languages, based on a recent BuzzFeed News search. Three listings were fulfilled by Amazon, while one was a sponsored post. On eBay, a search yielded 10 results for iFlytek voice translators.
Colleen Theron, the director of Ardea International, a UK-based consulting firm that advises businesses on human rights policies, said that while Amazon and other sellers don’t appear to be breaking the Commerce Department’s ban, there are more aspects that they should consider.
“It’s fine if you want to just meet the law, but actually going beyond compliance is where businesses need to be in order to be more resilient,” she said. “It is much more about doing the right thing and where the culture is.”
Amazon did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“I would like to think that most people wouldn’t want to buy a product that’s also in a concentration camp somewhere.”
Amazon competitors eBay and Overstock are also selling products from the two companies with government surveillance contracts in Xinjiang. A search on eBay for “Dahua” in “home surveillance parts & accessories” produced about 4,800 hits, some of which are sponsored. A search for Hikvision led to 6,240 hits under the “security cameras” category. Overstock did not sell any Dahua products but offered 56 Hikvision listings that appeared to be mainly from one third-party seller. Those listings came down after BuzzFeed News contacted the company.
“Overstock regularly reviews our website to ensure all sellers adhere to the terms of our prohibited items list,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “We have notified the sellers of the potentially noncomplying products and removed those products pending review.”
An eBay spokesperson acknowledged BuzzFeed News’ inquiry about the products but did not comment.
It’s unclear how the Commerce Department designations will affect Dahua’s and Hikvision’s businesses, though the companies appear stoic. A Dahua executive recently told a Chinese paper that the company considered its inclusion on the entity list as a sign of its prowess.
“The fact that we are under the US control list shows that we indeed have a strong technological capability,” Vice President Zhu Jiangming told the National Business Daily.
Hikvision said it opposed US sanctions in a statement after the export ban was announced. More recently, it told investors that the ban may cause it to lose some clients, Bloomberg reported.
In a press conference shortly after the ban, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang called the accusations of human rights violations “an excuse” for blacklisting Chinese companies.
“It seriously violates the basic norms governing international relations, interferes in China's internal affairs, and undermines China's interests,” he said. “China deplores and firmly opposes that.”
US lawmakers seem undeterred. There is strong bipartisan support for action against companies engaged with human rights violations against Uighurs, and lawmakers have already introduced resolutions denouncing the events in northwest China.
For other observers, the ethics of selling products from companies that have helped built Xinjiang’s security infrastructure are clear.
“This is part of a broader question that the world has to answer about what level of complicity do we want to have,” said Rian Thum, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham who wrote a book on Uighur history. “I would like to think that most people wouldn’t want to buy a product that’s also in a concentration camp somewhere.” ●