Leading universities across Australia have been accused of helping the Chinese Communist Party develop mass surveillance and military technologies.
The claims made on Monday night add to growing concern within Australian intelligence agencies that universities are putting national security at risk.
In an explosive report, the national ABC television programme Four Corners also pointed out that some Australian universities are now collaborating with Chinese companies that have been blacklisted by America because of their potential risks to United States security.
National security compromised
Meantime, Australian security officials have also warned that such joint research projects could compromise national intelligence gathering.
They refer particularly to a global data-mining company called Global Tone Communication, known as GTCOM, that is majority owned by the Chinese government and which publicly highlights its links to Australian universities.
The ABC investigation for the programme “Are Australian universities putting our national security at risk by working with China?” uncovered extensive collaborations between Australian universities and Chinese companies 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 that they were implicated in human rights abuses against China’s Muslim minorities,” ABC reporters said.
One major group that has secured a foothold in Australia is GTCOM, and the ABC report revealed that GTCOM had signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of New South Wales 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 [promoted] its connections with multiple Australian universities,” the ABC investigation found.
Senior Australian security officials say the company’s activities are “evidence that Beijing is running a global espionage operation through technology companies”.
China’s security interests
Dr Samantha Hoffman, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, spent months uncovering GTCOM’s global and Australian connections.
She says the company’s intent is 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,” Hoffman says. “So that immediately raises red flags.”
Professor John Fitzgerald, who has served as a chair on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Australia-China Council, said Chinese companies were capitalising on Australia’s science and technology expertise.
But Australia’s priorities in these fields were being set by the Chinese government because “we enter into collaborations that have really been designed to support China’s goals, not ours”, Fitzgerald said.
“Many universities are very happy to proceed with whatever it is … because of the money and prestige involved,” he said. “There’s a possibility, however, that some of this research will go towards uses which could place Australia at risk.”
No influence on UNSW
A spokesperson for the University of New South Wales (UNSW) said GTCOM had “no influence on any of UNSW’s programmes”.