China invests in US universities to build its surveillance state

It was recently revealed Chinese tech giant Alibaba awarded a $125,000 grant to Dinesh Manosha, a professor at the University of Maryland. The grant was for the development of machine learning software capable of “classifying each pedestrian’s personality and identifying other biometric characteristics”. The software is designed to predict pedestrian behavior for monitoring purposes.

Alibaba has in the past developed a product designed to recognize and classify the faces of Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in the northwest province of Xinjiang against which China is waging an unprecedented technological crackdown. There is a significant possibility that Manosha’s research could be used to develop technology that expands Chinese state surveillance capabilities. And he is not the only American academic doing such research.

Darren Byler, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada and an expert on Uyghurs, says: “There are many examples of American universities partnering or collaborating with Chinese companies doing government-contracted work. .

Byler noted that funding was provided to the University of Illinois by monitoring firm CloudWalk. He says, “Cloudwalk has done one of the most egregious jobs in automating the surveillance of Uyghurs and others in China.”

The problem is not limited to the United States. Freedom of Information Requests shipped by the China Research Group, and published in June 2021, revealed a number of links between Chinese companies and British universities. Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has provided millions of pounds in research funding to UK universities. Lancaster University alone has received over £1 million from the company to conduct research in semiconductors, computing and machine learning. This included £900,000 in 2020, the same year in the UK banned mobile network providers to purchase Huawei 5G equipment partly for national security reasons.

Huawei has been accused to provide the Chinese state with technology that has been used to monitor and track its population, including Uyghurs.

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

According in Article 7 of China’s National Intelligence Law, “Every organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence work in accordance with law, and maintain the secrecy of any knowledge of intelligence work of State”. This vague wording provides little assurance that companies operating in China will not be required to hand over research conducted by affiliated entities operating outside the country.

Furthermore, not only are universities in democratic countries helping to develop technology that could be used by the Chinese surveillance state, but Western governments are using similar technology on their own populations. For example, the UK is about 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 inequalities that exist in a society, whether or not the state has a democratic or undemocratic political system.” For example, he argues, “European and North American corporations are also complicit in the damage wrought by technologies when it comes to the racialization of minorities and immigrants.”


A US judge has ruled that exam proctoring software violated a student’s right to privacy. The technology uses student webcams to scan the room around them during exams. A student took Cleveland State University sued over its use of Honorlock software, which captured the student’s environment to ensure the student was not using study materials. The judge ruled the software was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable search and seizure. The ruling only applies to state universities, and potentially only in certain circumstances. This means that the technology could still be used by some institutions. During coronavirus lockdowns the use of surveillance technologies has increased. Exam monitoring software offers a wide range of features and often offers unrestricted access to web cameras, microphones, screens and browsers. Some software even uses biometric technology, such as facial recognition, eye tracking, and artificial intelligence.

The technology has been used in several countries outside of the United States, including Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada. A new report from the Privacy Foundation New Zealand Underline that educational software created by big tech companies and used by schools logs student data and has raised concerns that such software routinely breaches privacy.

Spyware problems in Europe are getting worse. A investigation by Lighthouse Reports discovered that a little-known Italian company was tracking people’s mobile devices in several countries, including Kazakhstan, Iraq and Italy. Tykelab exploits unpatched vulnerabilities in global phone networks, allowing customers to track people’s locations and even intercept phone calls. RCS Lab, owner of Tykelab, has also developed a hacking tool, which can remotely activate microphones, record calls, access messages, call logs, contact lists, photos and other data sensitive telephones. The report states that RCS Lab lured targets to fake internet domains, including fake Apple and Facebook domains, to then download Hermit software onto their devices.

The EU has already held hearings on the use of spyware, with a focus on Israeli company NSO and its Pegasus spyware. We looked at the impacts of Pegasus on a Togolese journalist a few weeks ago. Now EU officials have noted they can turn their attention to Tykelab. Greece is also in the crosshairs, mired in its own scandal, which came to light during revealed that the Predator spyware was used to spy on journalists and an opposition politician who was also a member of the European Parliament. The head of Greece’s intelligence services and a senior prime minister, who is also his nephew, were forced to resign.


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

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

From biometrics to surveillance – when people use technology to abuse power, the rest of us suffer

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