UTS, Curtin unis announce reviews over links to surveillance tech used by Chinese Government
Photo: China has used surveillance technology to track and detain ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs.
Two Australian universities are reviewing funding and research approval procedures due to concerns over links to technology that is being used to carry out mass human rights abuses by the Chinese Government in Xinjiang province.
Last night, Four Corners revealed that the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) is conducting an internal review into its $10 million partnership with CETC, a Chinese state-owned military tech company that developed an app that Chinese security forces use to track and detain Muslim Uyghur citizens in Xinjiang.
In 2017, UTS signed the lucrative deal with CETC to establish a new research centre, which included projects in artificial intelligence and surveillance.
That same year, the Communist Party began a new incarceration campaign, rounding up, detaining and forcibly indoctrinating Uyghurs and other Muslim minority ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
Islam has effectively been outlawed in the province, with people routinely labelled as extremists and imprisoned for practising their religion.
Technology used to incarcerate Uyghurs
Human Rights Watch, which revealed the existence of the app and CETC's involvement in its development, welcomed the internal review by UTS.
"I think no Australian university wants to be collaborating with a Chinese company that is basically building these tools of repression in China," said Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch Australia.
"This is an app that has been designed to gather basic information about Uyghurs and other Muslims. We know that people have been sent to political re-education camps on the basis of information collected through this application."
UTS says it is confident there is no link between the research conducted at its centre and the CETC app being used in Xinjiang.
The University told Four Corners it began its internal review in April after being "deeply concerned" by allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang.
"UTS at this stage has no plans for new work with CETC and will assess the current contractual agreements in light of the review," the university said in a statement.
UTS said the internal review should be completed "within weeks".
Unis urged to cut ties with Communist Party
As part of the partnership, the Chinese state-owned military tech company owns all intellectual property derived from the research collaboration with UTS.
La Trobe University associate professor James Leibold, one of the world's leading experts on ethnic minorities in China, is calling on all Australian universities to immediately end any links they might have with the Chinese Communist Party.
"Essentially by doing that, we're being complicit in the human rights abuses that are occurring in Xinjiang and in China more widely," he told Four Corners.
"I think the UTS and other universities here in Australia that have connections with any party state company, particularly in the military or security sector, needs to end those contracts, and to pull out of those collaborative arrangements."
Curtin Uni academic involved in AI method development
Curtin University in Perth is reviewing its research approval procedures after Four Corners revealed that an associate professor at the university has been involved in developing methods to better identify ethnic minorities in China using artificial intelligence.
Dr Darren Byler, an expert on Uyghurs and China at the University of Washington in Seattle, said that as part of its crackdown, Chinese security forces have been using the latest advanced facial recognition technology to track Uyghurs, not just in Xinjiang, but across the country.
"That's something that they're quite proud of that they can detect, racial difference or ethnic difference simply, based on that appearance," he said.
Curtin associate professor Liu Wan-Quan has been working on Chinese government-funded research that examines the faces of Uyghurs and how their features could be better picked up in facial scanning.
Experts have labelled the research by the professor as "racial profiling" and have warned that once this technology is created, individuals cannot control how it is used by the Chinese Government.
"They will say, 'Well, this is my area of expertise. Wow, I can use this stuff to identify a Uyghur as opposed to a Han. What the party state does with it is not my responsibility,'" Professor Leibold said.
"Well, I think that's shameful and shocking. I don't think Australian researchers should be involved in that, and it violates human ethics without a doubt."
Curtin University said Associate Professor Liu was solely focused on the provision of "technical advice to the Chinese research team" and that Curtin "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."
Elaine Pearson said Human Rights Watch was calling on Curtin and other Australian universities to review research arrangements with Chinese government institutions, particularly in the fields of artificial intelligence and surveillance.
"It's no secret that China is using facial recognition tools to racially profile Uyghurs and we know what happens as a consequence of that racial profiling," she said.
"I think there are real questions about how those projects were allowed to proceed.
"I think this should cause a rethink for all Australian institutions, companies, organisations, that are collaborating with Chinese state institutions."