China invests in US universities to build its surveillance state

Frankie Vetch

 

It was recently revealed that Chinese tech giant Alibaba provided a $125,000 grant to Dinesh Manosha, a professor at the University of Maryland. The grant was for the development of a machine learning software that could “classify the personality of each pedestrian and identify other biometric features.” The software is designed to predict the behavior of pedestrians for surveillance purposes.

Alibaba has in the past developed a product designed to recognize and classify the faces of Uyghur people, a Muslim minority in the Northwestern province of Xinjiang, on whom China has been conducting an unprecedented technology-driven crackdown. There is a significant possibility that Manosha’s research could be used to develop technology that expands the Chinese state’s surveillance capabilities. And he is not the only U.S.-based academic doing such research.

Darren Byler, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada and an expert on Uyghurs, says, “There are numerous instances of U.S. universities partnering or collaborating with Chinese companies that do state contracting work.” 

Byler noted that funding was provided to the University of Illinois by surveillance company CloudWalk. He says, “Cloudwalk has done some of the most egregious work when it comes to automating surveillance of Uyghurs and others in China.”

The problem is not just limited to the United States. Freedom of Information requests sent by the China Research Group, and published in June 2021, revealed a number of links between Chinese companies and U.K. universities. Chinese telecoms firm Huawei has provided millions of pounds in research funding to U.K. universities. The University of Lancaster alone received over £1 million from the company, to conduct research on semiconductors, computing and machine learning. This included £900,000 in 2020, the same year the UK banned mobile network providers from buying Huawei 5G equipment in part due to national security concerns. 

Huawei has been accused of providing technology to the Chinese state that has been used to watch and track its population, including Uyghurs.


In order to access state funding and data, a lot of computer vision companies in China are willing to partner with the state, says Byler. But, he adds, “people should be concerned with the Chinese surveillance companies from a human rights perspective regardless of whether or not they are directly owned by the state.”

According to Article 7 of the Chinese National Intelligence Law, “Any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work in accordance with the law, and maintain the secrecy of all knowledge of state intelligence work.” This vague wording gives little reassurance that companies operating in China will not be obliged to hand over research conducted by affiliated entities operating outside the country.

Besides, not only are universities in democratic countries helping develop technology that has the potential to be used by the Chinese surveillance state, Western governments are using similar technology on their own populations. For instance, the UK is set to start using facial recognition technology on migrants, as I reported last week.

Byler says, “It is important to understand that this type of technology exacerbates the inequities that exist in a society regardless of whether or not the state has a democratic or anti-democratic political system.” For instance, he argues, “European and North American companies are also complicit in harms produced by technologies when it comes to the racialization of minorities and immigrants.”

IN GLOBAL NEWS

A U.S. judge has ruled that exam-proctoring software breached a student’s privacy rights. The technology uses students’ webcams to scan the room around them during exams. A student took Cleveland State University to court over its use of the Honorlock software, which captured the student’s surroundings to ensure the student was not using study materials. The judge ruled that the software was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. The ruling only applies to state universities, and potentially only in certain circumstances. Meaning that the technology could still be used by some institutions. During the coronavirus lockdowns the use of the surveillance technologies grew. Exam-proctoring software is wide-ranging in its capabilities, and often gives unfettered access to web cameras, microphones, screens and browsers. Some softwares even use biometric technology, such as facial recognition, eye tracking and artificial intelligence. 

The technology has been used in several countries other than the US, including Australia, the Netherlands and Canada. A new report by the Privacy Foundation New Zealand highlighted that educational software created by big technology companies and used by schools is recording the data of students and raised concerns that such software routinely breaches privacy.

Europe’s spyware problems deepen. An investigation by Lighthouse Reports has found that a little-known Italian company has been tracking people’s mobile devices in several countries, including Kazakhstan, Iraq and Italy. Tykelab has been exploiting unfixed vulnerabilities in global phone networks, allowing clients to track people’s locations and even intercept phone calls. RCS Lab, which owns Tykelab, has also been developing a hacking tool, which can remotely activate microphones, record calls, access messages, call logs, contact lists, photos and other sensitive phone data. The report indicates that RCS Lab has been luring targets to fake internet domains, including fake Apple and Facebook domains, to then download the Hermit software onto their devices. 

The EU has already been holding hearings looking into the use of spyware software, with a focus on the Israeli company NSO and its Pegasus spyware. We looked at the impacts of Pegasus on a Togo journalist a couple of weeks ago. Now EU officials have indicated they may turn their attention to Tykelab. Greece is also in the crosshairs, as it has been mired in its own scandal, which came to light when it was revealed that the Predator spyware was used to spy on journalists and an opposition politician who was also a European Parliament member. The head of the Greek intelligence service and a senior aid to the Prime Minister, who is also his nephew, were forced to resign.

WHAT WE’RE READING

“It used to be that it would be a fascist’s dream to have a camera and a speaker in every home, and of course, we did it to ourselves.” Wired explores calls for robust privacy laws in the United States in response to the threat posed by having authoritarian leaders poised as viable candidates in future presidential elections.

This week’s newsletter is curated by Coda’s staff reporter Frankie Vetch. Isobel Cockerell contributed to this edition.

From biometrics to surveillance — when people in power abuse technology, the rest of us suffer

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