Universities accused of aiding mass surveillance in China

Leading universities across Australia have been accused of helping the Chinese Communist Party develop mass surveillance and military technologies.

The claims made on Monday night add to growing concern within Australian intelligence agencies that universities are putting national security at risk.

In an explosive report, the national ABC television programme Four Corners also pointed out that some Australian universities are now collaborating with Chinese companies that have been blacklisted by America because of their potential risks to United States security.

National security compromised

Meantime, Australian security officials have also warned that such joint research projects could compromise national intelligence gathering.

They refer particularly to a global data-mining company called Global Tone Communication, known as GTCOM, that is majority owned by the Chinese government and which publicly highlights its links to Australian universities.

The ABC investigation for the programme “Are Australian universities putting our national security at risk by working with China?” uncovered extensive collaborations between Australian universities and Chinese companies involved in ‘Beijing’s increasingly global surveillance apparatus’.

“At least two of those companies and organisations have been blacklisted in the past week by the US government, which concluded that they were implicated in human rights abuses against China’s Muslim minorities,” ABC reporters said.

One major group that has secured a foothold in Australia is GTCOM, and the ABC report revealed that GTCOM had signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of New South Wales to test its technology.

“GTCOM has boasted of being able to mine data in 65 languages at a rate of 16,000 words per second from websites and social media, and spruiked [promoted] its connections with multiple Australian universities,” the ABC investigation found.

Senior Australian security officials say the company’s activities are “evidence that Beijing is running a global espionage operation through technology companies”.

China’s security interests

Dr Samantha Hoffman, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, spent months uncovering GTCOM’s global and Australian connections.

She says the company’s intent is to support the Chinese Communist Party’s security interests.

“Whether it contributes to a state security product or propaganda or military intelligence, all of the data they’re collecting can then be turned into information that supports those objectives," Hoffman says. "So that immediately raises red flags.”

Professor John Fitzgerald, who has served as a chair on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Australia-China Council, said Chinese companies were capitalising on Australia’s science and technology expertise.

But Australia’s priorities in these fields were being set by the Chinese government because “we enter into collaborations that have really been designed to support China’s goals, not ours”, Fitzgerald said.

“Many universities are very happy to proceed with whatever it is … because of the money and prestige involved,” he said. “There’s a possibility, however, that some of this research will go towards uses which could place Australia at risk.”

No influence on UNSW

A spokesperson for the University of New South Wales (UNSW) said GTCOM had “no influence on any of UNSW’s programmes”.

“The university … is keen to pursue greater transparency as well as increased [Australian] government collaboration … to ensure its operations are always in line with the national interest,” he said.

But GTCOM also shares technology and data with the Chinese tech giant Huawei, which is now blacklisted by the US. Huawei is also banned in Australia from becoming involved with the nation’s new 5G transmission network because of security and espionage concerns.

Huawei, however, also has a strategic partnership with the Chinese company Haiyun Data, that provides technology for the surveillance of minority ethnic Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province.

Partnering with UTS

In January, Chinese media reported on Haiyun Data’s announcement of a new joint artificial intelligence laboratory with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

Professor Jie Lu, UTS associate dean and director of its Centre for Artificial Intelligence, was pictured in Chinese media holding a signed agreement with Haiyun Data.

Lu was last month awarded a AU$3.2 million (US$2.2 million) fellowship from the Australian Research Council for a project to enable artificial intelligence to learn autonomously from data.

But UTS told the Four Corners’ editors that there was no joint laboratory and the Chinese media reporting was “a complete misrepresentation”.

However, it confirmed that the university did have a research project with Haiyun Data to develop technology for handwriting recognition.

International implications

Alastair MacGibbon, a former head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre at the secretive Australian Signals Directorate, said universities needed to understand the implications of their international research deals.

“If it’s a firm that’s backed by a regime … and it’s engaging in what could be developments that help suppress people, then that’s a dangerous thing,” MacGibbon said.

Hoffman said it seemed as if Haiyun Data had built a relationship with scholars at UTS.

“But we also know that UTS seems to have signed other agreements that raise major red flags,” she said.

In July, UTS launched a review into a separate AU$10 million (US$6.7 million) deal for a high-tech research centre funded by a Chinese state-owned military company, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC).

CETC has also been implicated in the mass monitoring of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, but UTS denies its research has contributed to their surveillance.

Under the 2017 deal, CETC funded several projects, including one focused on public security video analysis.

Four Corners producers were told the university was abandoning that project and two others involved with CETC because of concerns raised by Australia’s Department of Defence.

The university’s review of the CETC deal recommended a number of areas where UTS should improve its risk management practices and scrutiny. These included “more detailed analysis and documentation of subsidiaries of organisations involved in collaborative research”.

Chinese companies blacklisted by the US

ABC researchers said they had identified other research collaborations between Australian universities and Chinese companies that have been recently blacklisted by the US government.

They alleged that academics from the University of Adelaide have worked with a senior figure at a high-tech Chinese start-up called Megvii on technology to track vehicles in videos.

But the company is also a leader in facial recognition technology and has now been added to the US blacklist after being implicated in human rights abuses.

A spokesperson for Megvii told ABC: “We try to ensure that our technology is not used for damaging purposes.”

However, a spokesman for the University of Adelaide said that the university “has not collaborated with Megvii, either formally or informally”. He told University World News that one of the university’s researchers worked with a group of other researchers on a project, one of whom later went on to work for Megvii.

“We don’t believe the ABC’s claim is justified,” he said.

Sydney collaboration

At the University of Sydney, scientists have collaborated with Chinese video surveillance giant SenseTime to help it track moving objects through multiple camera frames.

But SenseTime was also blacklisted by the US government in mid-October over human rights concerns. In response, the university said the SenseTime partnership was subject to ongoing review.

Australian universities have also collaborated with Chinese defence universities, including researchers at the Australian National University who have worked on dozens of such projects.

These include a 2019 study on covert communications with China’s National University of Defense Technology, which itself was blacklisted by the US four years ago.

The study authors said their work could have military applications, including “for a stealth fighter … to be able to hide itself from enemies while communicating with its military bases”.

Australian National University Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt told the Four Corners programme he was not aware of the study. But he said that if there were specific areas of research that were detrimental to the national interest, “we need to look at them”.

Foreign interference

Last August, Australia’s Education Minister Dan Tehan announced he would establish a universities taskforce to investigate foreign interference on the nation’s campuses.

Tehan said he believed this had reached “unprecedented levels”.

“We want to make sure it’s very clear what the responsibilities of universities are when it comes to collaborating with any foreign government, because it’s incredibly important … that collaboration is in Australia’s interests,” he said.

This article was updated on 16 October to include the University of Adelaide's denial of any collaboration with Megvii.