Australian universities collaborated with surveillance app and racial profiling tech developers linked to China’s human rights abuse of Uighur people

A bearded Uigur man from Xinjiang, 2007. Excessive facial hair has recently been outlawed in the region. Picture: Getty Images
  • The University of Technology Sydney and Curtin University in Western Australia have been named in an explosive ABC Four Corners report on human rights abuses in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.
  • UTS has a partnership in place with Chinese state-owned tech company CETC, which reportedly developed an app used in the detention of Uighur minority members, while a Curtin professor has been accused of working with the Chinese government to develop racial profiling technology.
  • UTS and Curtin are both reviewing their research collaboration procedures in the wake of the report.

Two Australian universities are reeling from an explosive Four Corners documentary aired on ABC TV on Monday, which accused them of links to technology used by the Chinese government in its human rights abuses of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

The documentary detailed a $10 million partnership between the University of Technology Sydney and the state-owned China Electronics Technology Company, which produces military surveillance technology believed to be used to track and detain Uighurs.

Human Rights Watch first raised the issue of CETC’s technology being used for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, writing to the company’s chairman in February 2019 to ask whether it is aware how its tech is being used by authorities in the troubled province.

In a statement on its website, UTS has announced a review of its partnership with CETC, including the contract terms and the nature of work performed under the partnership to date. It said the review was commenced quietly in April when it first became aware of Human Rights Watch’s concerns.

The university also clarified that it has submitted a number of CETC partnership projects to the Australian Department of Defence for approval and said not all of its projects with CETC are controversial — such as its work on “developing algorithms for an indoor robot for use in offices and warehouses”.

“China has many of the world’s most eminent researchers in the fields of technology, artificial intelligence, robotics and big data, who collaborate with leading universities across the globe, including in the US, UK and Australia,” the statement added.

The ABC report also named Curtin University Associate Professor Liu Wan-Quan, who it said has been working on “Chinese government-funded research that examines the face of [Uighurs] and how their features could be better picked up in facial scanning”.

In a statement provided to Business Insider Australia, Curtin Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research Chris Moran said Liu’s involvement in the development of the racial profiling technology was “limited to the provision of technical advice to the project team in China” and that he wasn’t really part of the research team.

“Curtin University unequivocally condemns the use of artificial intelligence, including facial recognition technology, for any form of ethnic profiling to negatively impact and/or persecute any person or group,” Moran said.

He said Curtin has now established a working group to set guidelines for informal research partnerships.

Human Rights Watch director Elaine Pearson told the ABC she welcomes the university reviews.

“I think no Australian university wants to be collaborating with a Chinese company that is basically building these tools of repression in China,” she said.

The report follows Four Corners’ revelation that detained Uighurs in Xinjiang have been forced into factory labour, producing textiles used by Australian retailers including Cotton On and Target.

UPDATED 1:53pm 16/7/19: A previous version of this article was published under the headline “Australian universities collaborated on surveillance app and racial profiling technology linked to China’s human rights abuse of Uighur people”. A UTS spokesperson subsequently clarified that CETC has not used any output from the UTS partnership in apps or products to date. The headline has been amended.

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