Australia’s top universities could be aiding the Chinese Communist Party’s mission to develop mass surveillance and military technologies, amid rising concerns from Australian intelligence agencies that they are putting national security at risk.
- Leading Australian universities have research collaborations with Chinese companies that have been blacklisted by the US
- Australian security officials warn the joint research could compromise national security
- Global data-mining company GTCOM is majority owned by the Chinese Government and spruiks links to Australian universities
A joint Four Corners-Background Briefing investigation has uncovered extensive collaborations between Australian universities and Chinese entities 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 they were implicated in human rights abuses against China’s Muslim minorities.
A major player that has secured a foothold in Australia is Global Tone Communication (GTCOM), a global data-mining company that is majority owned by the Chinese Government.
Four Corners and Background Briefing can reveal GTCOM has signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of New South Wales (UNSW) 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 its connections with multiple Australian universities.
Senior Australian security officials have told Four Corners the company’s activities are evidence that Beijing is running a global espionage operation through technology companies.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Samantha Hoffman has spent months uncovering GTCOM’s global and Australian connections.
She said the company’s intent was 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,” said Dr Hoffman, who has released a major report on GTCOM.
“So immediately that raises red flags.”
Professor John Fitzgerald, who served as a chair on DFAT’s Australia-China Council, said Chinese companies were capitalising on Australia’s science and technology expertise.
“Australia’s science and technology priorities are being set by the Chinese Government because we enter into collaborations that have really been designed to support China’s goals, not ours,” he said.
“Many universities are very happy to proceed with whatever it is … because of the money and prestige involved.
“There’s a possibility that some of this research will go towards uses which could place Australia at risk.”
A spokesman for UNSW said GTCOM had “no influence on any of UNSW’s programs”.
“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.
GTCOM also shares technology and data with Chinese tech giant Huawei, which is blacklisted by the US and banned in Australia from the 5G network due to security and espionage concerns.
It also has a strategic partnership with Chinese company Haiyun Data, which provides technology for the surveillance of minority ethnic Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang province.
GTCOM partner working 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).
UTS associate dean and director of its Centre for Artificial Intelligence, Professor Jie Lu, was pictured holding a signed agreement with Haiyun.
Professor Lu was last month awarded a $3.2 million fellowship from the Australian Research Council for a project to enable artificial intelligence to learn autonomously from data.
UTS has told Four Corners there is no joint laboratory and the Chinese media reporting is “a complete misrepresentation”.
The university has confirmed it has a research project with Haiyun Data to develop technology for handwriting recognition.
Haiyun Data did not respond to questions from Four Corners.
Former head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre at the Australian Signals Directorate Alastair MacGibbon 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,” he said.
Dr Hoffman said it seemed as if Haiyun Data had built a relationship with scholars at the university.
“But we also know that UTS Sydney seems to have signed other agreements that raise major red flags,” Dr Hoffman said.
In July, UTS launched a review into a separate $10 million deal for a high-tech research centre funded by state-owned military company China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC).
CETC has also been implicated in the mass monitoring of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, but UTS denies its research contributed to their surveillance.
Under the 2017 deal, CETC funded several projects, including one focused on public security video analysis.
Four Corners has been told the university is abandoning that project and two others with CETC because of concerns raised by Australia’s Defence Department.
The university’s review of the CETC deal recommended a number of areas where UTS should improve its risk management practices and scrutiny, including “more detailed analysis and documentation of subsidiaries of organisations involved in collaborative research”.
Chinese companies blacklisted by the US
Four Corners and Background Briefing have identified other research collaborations between Australian universities and Chinese companies that have been recently blacklisted by the US Government.
Researchers from the University of Adelaide have worked with a senior figure at high-tech Chinese start-up Megvii on technology to track vehicles in videos.
The company is a leader in facial recognition technology and was last week added to the US trade blacklist after being implicated in human rights abuses.
Megvii told the ABC “we try to ensure that our technology is not used for damaging purposes”.
A spokesperson from the University of Adelaide said while one of its professors was involved in the Megvii project, it was not a formal 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.
SenseTime was also blacklisted by the US Government last week over human rights concerns.
The university said the SenseTime partnership was subject to ongoing review.
UNSW Professor of Artificial Intelligence Toby Walsh said Australian universities were walking down a dangerous road and should consider carefully who they collaborate with.
“We’ve seen such rapid advances in the last few years, that we do now have to wake up and consider seriously the implications and how the technology that we work on can be misused,” he said.
Australian universities have also collaborated with Chinese defence universities.
Researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) have worked on dozens of such studies, including a 2019 study on covert communications with the China’s National University of Defense Technology, which was blacklisted by the US four years ago.
The study authors said it could have military applications, including “for a stealth fighter … to be able to hide itself from enemies while communicating with its military bases.”
ANU vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt told Four Corners he was not aware of the study but “if there are specific areas of research that are detrimental to the national interest, we need to look at them”.
Deepening political rift between Australia and Beijing
In August, Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan announced a universities taskforce into foreign interference, which he said was at 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 told Four Corners.
Are Australians aiding China’s surveillance state?
Chinese academic Professor Chen Hong, who was provided to Four Corners by the Chinese embassy for interview, denied that China posed a threat.
“We’ve noticed actually the ASIO and other intelligence units in Australia making allegations direct or indirect, against China,” he said.
“We think actually these allegations are unfounded and without substantial evidence.”
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson, a member of the Federal Government’s taskforce, said universities already abided by rules on research collaborations.
“The Defence Trade Controls list is a very long list and it’s reviewed every single year to keep it really up to date, and universities aren’t just diligent, they’re incredibly diligent about making sure that their research collaborations are absolutely inside the letter of the law,” she said.
Professor Clive Hamilton, who has spent years researching Chinese Communist Party interference at universities, described the research situation as “astonishing”.
“Australian universities have not been sleepwalking, they’ve been in a coma,” he said.
“Perhaps three or four years ago university vice-chancellors could have said, ‘Oh well, we didn’t know’.
“That is no longer an excuse.”
By Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop, Mario Christodoulou, Sashka Koloff, Lauren Day, Echo Hui, Background Briefing
Four Corners ABC